A Scientist with a Mohawk Inspires the Next Generation

09/05/2012 06:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 05, 2012

My kids and I were absolutely floored while watching the live stream of the Mars Discovery landing. In fact, we watched it several times to really absorb the magnitude of it all. To be quite honest, I don't think that I've fully wrapped my head around it. The one thing that really got me emotionally, in addition to the actual landing that looked like it was straight out of an HD sci-fi movie, was the sheer happiness that the JDL team displayed. Everyone jumped, raised their hands and took in this one feeling: awesomeness. It was absolutely inspiring to me, but to my kids, that feeling was amplified a million fold. There is no end to what we can accomplish if we really put our minds together.

My oldest son is obsessed with science and math. He is the kind of kid that reads algebra books for fun. Seriously. My middle son, on the other hand, is a skateboarder with a school aversion. He doesn't care much for science, but a mohawk will catch his attention, regardless of the circumstance. That's why the person in the front row of the NASA live stream (about a minute and forty two seconds in) totally caught his eye. "I think that scientist has a mohawk with stars on its side." We paused the stream and confirmed that yes, this scientist, Bobak Ferdowsi, has a full-on mohawk. This meant so much to my somewhat-apathetic-towards-science middle son. Science can be cool?

Even President Obama thinks so. Watch his conversation with the Mars Discovery team. My favorite quote? "You guys are a little cooler than you used to be." Are they ever. For one of the first times in their lives, my kids together were brought together over a shared interest. When we were given the opportunity to interview the man behind the mohawk, we jumped at the chance. My oldest son, hereafter referred to as "J," composed a series of questions -- with his younger brothers' approval, of course.

J: Did you dream of working for NASA when you were younger?

Bobak: A lot. I started out with a love of cars, but pretty early on I started reading science fiction, and then I became obsessed with space. When I was younger it was mostly about sending people to space, but right around the time I graduated high school, the people here at JPL landed the Pathfinder mission on Mars. The whole idea of putting things on another planet was so cool and it motivated me to pursue areas of study more like what JPL does.

J: Why did the Rover take three years to land on Mars?

Bobak: I'm not sure what the three years refers to, but it took us 8.5 months to get from Earth to Mars...[and] we traveled about 350 million miles to get there! The timing and length of that trip is all determined by our navigation team, but it basically comes down to what is most efficient -- it takes a lot of energy to get there, and so there are times when the orbits of Earth and Mars line up (about every 26 months) that are best for efficiency. We launched on November 26, 2011 and landed on August 5, 2012. In terms of what it takes to make a rover, well that took years (I've been on this project for almost nine years). It starts with coming up with concepts for what we want to do, then [creating] different designs until we settle on a final one. After that it takes thousands of people to fill in all the details, build it, test it and eventually send it to Mars.

J: What's it like working for NASA?

Bobak: Pretty amazing. I really love it here. There are days that are more challenging than others, but I really do look forward to work every day. It's really fun because I do feel like I'm working on some of the same science fiction that I grew up reading. One of the best things about it NASA is that everyone is really passionate and hardworking, and most importantly, I am surrounded by very bright, very kind people who all share a common goal.

J: Do you think that you will find civilization on Mars and why?

Bobak: I doubt we'll find civilization on Mars, because civilization usually leaves a mark big enough that we can see it from space (think farms, cities, etc). There's a possibility we could find life one day (though if it's there, it's likely under the surface). Curiosity will mostly look for what life needs to survive -- whether those are there today or if they were once there in Mars' history. Future missions could look for life depending on what we find with Curiosity.

J: Do you identify with Howard on the Big Bang Theory?

Bobak: Sometimes. I also hang out with a bunch of very smart and funny people, too. Fortunately my friends don't give me such a hard time!

(Editor's note: J loves The Big Bang Theory, which has a ton of adult content. Thanks, wonderful in-laws for introducing him to this show on a sleepover! Thankfully, most of it goes over his head... but not the science, never the science!)

J: How far is the Earth from Mars?

Bobak: It changes a lot. Right now it's about 160 million miles away. Depending on how we line up though, it can get as close as about 35 million miles away, and as far as approximately 250 million miles away.

J: What's your favorite algorithm?

Bobak: It's silly, but one of my favorites (because we use it so much for our communications) is the Fast Fourier Transform. In our everyday lives, we use it everywhere without realizing. It's basically a very efficient way of evaluating frequencies (like radio waves).
Bobak, you are amazing. Thanks for inspiring the next generation with your crazy cool hair and overall mad smartness. You rock!