As the rover called Curiosity made its hair-raising, breathtaking descent into the Martian atmosphere Sunday night, the viewers watching NASA's live feed at home seemed to have just one question: Who’s that guy with the mohawk?
Flight director Bobak Ferdowsi’s eyes were trained on his monitor in the front row of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory control room as the Mars Science Laboratory made it through its final "seven minutes of terror" and touched down on the Red Planet. But many viewers’ eyes were fixed on Ferdowsi -- turning the Bay Area native into an online sensation in the ensuing hours and days, drawing some 43,000 Twitter followers and inspiring Internet memes.
Wearing a blue-and-red plaid shirt that perfectly complemented his hairstyle -- red and blue streaks in his Mohawk, with white stars bleached into the side -- Ferdowsi, 32, chatted Wednesday about his newfound fame, his style and his experiences on this ambitious NASA mission.
What’s your job on this NASA mission?
I’m one of a team of flight directors. I’ve been trying to draw this analogy of the "Apollo 13" Ed Harris role [who played flight director Gene Krantz]. What it really involves is taking a holistic view of the spacecraft operations and making sure that while we’re operating, we’re not doing anything to put the spacecraft at risk.
Not only is this our baby, because we worked so hard, but now it’s a national asset on Mars. We are responsible to everybody to make sure that we do our best to keep it safe and running for everybody.
Did you expect all this attention the night of the landing?
Not in the least. I thought there might be a funny comment or two somewhere, or a friend who says, "Oh I saw you on TV." I’ve actually [already] been doing different hairstyles for different events in the mission.
What kind of styles?
I did one that I thought was way more crazy at launch -- it was red and orange and then gold at the bottom -- kind of looked like a rocket plume. So I thought that one was way more ridiculous.
This one, I thought, was one just kind of fun.… But I guess the world thought it was pretty crazy.
How’d you decide on the cut and color?
It’s been a mix. Sometimes I’ll just ask my different friends on the projects. But this time one of my coworkers put a poll up and sent an email out to my team and asked them to vote on different hair options, and they kind of overwhelmingly voted for red, white and blue. I think 40 or 50 people ended up voting.
What were their other choices?
I believe there was "Mars red," there was "shave your head," there was "natural," and I feel like there might have been one more. But those are the ones I remember.
What did you think of the powder-blue shirts all NASA team members wore the night of the launch?
You know, they looked a lot better on camera than I thought they were going to look!
I was actually excited that we had a team shirt; I thought it was fun for the entire team … and of course it makes for an awesome souvenir. A positive thing. We all joked that we looked like Smurfs.
Why do you think your mohawk captivated so many people?