Kid Reporters

Meet a NASA Engineer

TIME For Kids caught up with Bobak Ferdowsi, a rising star at the space agency

April 22, 2013
BEATA POZNIAK DANIELS

NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi and TFK Kid Reporter Rylan J. Daniels pose in front of a model of Mars rover Curiosity at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California.

I visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to interview one of the space agency’s engineers, Bobak Ferdowsi.  He became an overnight Internet sensation when his mohawk haircut, decorated with stars and stripes, was caught on camera during news coverage of the Curiosity rover’s historic landing on Mars. Even President Obama joked that he was thinking about getting a haircut like the “Mohawk Guy.”  

Ferdowsi’s far-out hairstyle has put him and NASA’s mission in the spotlight. In February, First Lady Michelle Obama invited Ferdowsi to be her special guest at the President’s State of the Union address. President Obama and the First Lady are interested in promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) in our nation’s schools. Who can do a better job of making science cool to kids than the “Mohawk Guy?”

I spoke to Ferdowsi about his job, Curiosity’s findings on Mars and the future of NASA. I also got the scoop on his visit with Michelle Obama and how he feels about all the attention he gets for his hairstyles.

NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi celebrates the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on August 5, 2012, at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Brian Van Der Brug—Getty Images
NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi celebrates the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on August 5, 2012, at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

TFK:

Can you describe your job at NASA?

BOBAK FERDOWSI:

I have a variety of jobs. I make sure the engineering activities the rover does every day are safe. I also make sure the back-up computers are all in top shape. I do engineering tasks every day as well, just like the maintenance you would do on a car.

TFK:

What is the coolest part of your job?

FERDOWSI:

The most fun for me is testing out the rover and making sure everything works. Sometimes you’re just sitting there for hours asking questions like, “What would happen if I moved this? What if we throw this little thing in there? Will the spacecraft react the way we expect it to?”

TFK:

When you were testing the rover, were you nervous that something bad might happen?

FERDOWSI:

We were excited if something bad happened!  That means we discovered something that we didn’t know before. Obviously, we would get nervous if the real vehicle was on its way to Mars and something bad happened.

TFK:

What new things have you learned about Mars?

FERDOWSI:

We knew there was a history of water on Mars. But we didn’t understand the story of that water and if the water was super salty or acidic. Curiosity landed on Mars in this area that used to have an abundance of water. Now we know that the water was a lot like lake water, almost drinkable. We’re finding ingredients in this water that could possibly support life.

TFK:

Can you describe how you felt the night the Curiosity rover landed successfully on Mars? What did that mean to you and your team?

FERDOWSI:

Seeing Curiosity land on Mars after working on the rover for nine years was an amazing experience. It was really emotional. I had tears of joy in my eyes. It was the best experience of my life.

TFK:

How long did it take to make the rover?

FERDOWSI:

Kid Reporter
Rylan J. Daniels

Roughly 10 years from drawings to the landing on the surface of Mars. It’s a long process in which we come up with ideas to see if they will work. Then we come up with a real design. Finally, we build it, test it, operate it and make sure it gets to Mars safely.

TFK:

Were you surprised that your hairstyles received so much attention?

FERDOWSI:

I was surprised. I had been doing different hairstyles for different events on the project. For launch, I dyed my hair red and gold in the back. It looked like a rocket flame. Everyone knew I was going to do something for the landing. My boss sent out an email saying: “You guys, everyone gets to vote on Bobak’s next hairstyle.” They decided on the red, white and blue.  But the hair is just a way of celebrating our big events.

Bobak Ferdowsi wears a patriotic mohawk at President Obama's State of the Union address on Febrary 12, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images
Bobak Ferdowsi wears a patriotic mohawk at President Obama's State of the Union address on Febrary 12, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

TFK:

How did you feel about President Obama joking about getting a Mohawk like yours?

FERDOWSI:

I think it’s pretty cool. He’d look good in a Mohawk. It was a little crazy. I couldn’t believe the President was talking about me. I actually think it was kind of neat because we’re in this period where the engineers and scientists at NASA don’t look like what some people might expect. They have different colored hair, tattoos and different clothing styles.

TFK:

Do you feel that the attention you’ve received is a positive thing for NASA?

FERDOWSI:

I hope it’s a positive thing for NASA. I would like to represent the idea that you can be whoever you are. This is who I am and I still work at NASA. What’s really cool is that the quality of your work is more important than how you dress or anything else.

TFK:

What was it like to meet First Lady Michelle Obama?

FERDOWSI:

It was amazing to meet her. She was very kind. She gave me a big hug, which is super sweet. Then we talked about Curiosity for a while. We talked about the President’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives. He is working to bring these subjects to our youth.

TFK:

Are you optimistic about NASA’s future?

FERDOWSI:

I am very optimistic. We have a mission to Mars in 2016 to look for plate tectonics on Mars. As for manned missions, the Orion crew capsule is under development and will be tested in 2014. It’s a very exciting time for NASA. We’re gathering our forces and getting ready for these big leaps forward in exploration.

TFK:

What advice would you give to a kid who wants to become a NASA engineer?

FERDOWSI:

What is amazing about working at NASA is the variety of backgrounds people have. We have people with engineering backgrounds. We’re really good at building things, but we’re not necessarily good at sticking to a budget or a schedule. So we have schedulers and people who do finance. We have lawyers. We have people who do a fantastic job of explaining to the world what it is that we do. If you want to be involved in space, find something that you’re really good at.  It’s almost inevitable that we have a job here that requires that skill set.


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