Skip to Content

Beryl Lieff Benderly

Curiosity About the NASA Mohawk Guy

So you want to become an Internet sensation, pick up 20,000 Twitter followers in a day and have your name turn up hundreds of times on Google?  How’s this for a clever strategy: Get a bachelors in aeronautical and astronautical engineering at the University of Washington and a masters at MIT, and work for nine years at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  Then, on the night when the whole world is glued to television screens for Seven Minutes of Terror, sit behind your computer at the mission control sporting, above your blue NASA shirt and under your headset, a thick black Mohawk adorned with yellow and red stars.

That is the approach taken by Bobak Ferdowsi,
the 32-year-old NASA flight director with the movie star profile, who,
ever since Curiosity started its landing on Mars, has been the world’s
indisputably coolest–and hottest–science guy.  (The dude with the
shoulder-length gray locks didn’t come close, and even Adam Steltzner’s Elvis pompadour
was a distant second in the hairdo department, though he did do very
well when it came to designing a landing vehicle.)  Ferdowsi, who has
been deluged by proposals and propositions of every kind and requests
for media interviews, reportedly gets a new coiffure for every mission. 
This one was apparently the winner of a popular vote among his
colleagues.   We’ve come a long way from the square-jawed,
buttoned-down, crew-cut, skinny tie days of Mission Control Houston,
but, hey, Pasadena is a suburb of LA, after all. 

There was
another stunning revelation from the Curiosity mission.  Who knew that
NASA rocket scientists are superstitious before a big event, just like
regular folk?  Apparently, for more than 40 years they’ve munched
peanuts for luck in the control room at every mission, ever since a
successful mission when someone noticed that one thing that
differentiated it from a previous series of failures was that one of the
controllers was eating peanuts.

But most touching was the
rapturous, tearful joy of the team after the simply, unbelievably,
gorgeous maneuver of placing a vehicle the size of an SUV in just the
right Martian parking place.  They parked it better than I do in the
average shopping mall garage.  The crowd watching the landing on the big
screen in Times Square reportedly started chanting “Sci-ence! Sci-ence!

We’ve often spoken nostalgically in this space of the days when NASA made science, in the late Sally Ride’s
words, “really cool.”  Well, the fabulous Curiosity show, not to
mention the dazzling coming attractions soon to reach a screen near you,
make me wonder if those days may not, at least for a while, be back
again.  For the sake of American science, I hope so.