NASA lost much of its luster when it terminated the manned space shuttle program in August 2011. But when the Jet Propulsion Laboratory landed a car-size rover in the Red Planet’s Gale crater last August—complete with cameras beaming back HD photos—it captivated the nation in a way the administration hasn’t since the Apollo program. And while there were 40 people in the Pasadena, California, control room helping monitor the rover, only one became an Internet sensation and the de facto spokesman for the ten-year, $2.5 billion project: Bobak Ferdowsi, 33, an Iranian-American systems engineer whose mohawk went viral. We spoke with Ferdowsi, who sports a different haircut for each milestone in the project, about what it’s like to inherit the mantle of great explorers.
OUTSIDE: The media latched onto you because of the mohawk. Did the rest of
the team wish they had a funky hairstyle?
FERDOWSI: I don’t think anybody else wanted that haircut. But, in a way, they all had a hand in it. My bosses sent out an e-mail before one of the practice landings and asked the team to vote on the style I should have. I told them their decision was nonbinding.
Past explorers lost life and limb. What are you risking?
Even now, if we’re not cautious, we could end the mission. That’s why we take our job so seriously. The rover is a billion-dollar national resource that we’ve put on the surface of another planet.
What’s the goal?
We want to get to the foothills of Mount Sharp, which is this gorgeous mountain on the edge of the crater we landed in. One of the most amazing things was that first picture on Mars—you could see it in the distance. We’ll have to do some driving to get there. So far we’ve gone only 700 meters.
So there’s nobody raising hell with the rover like a drone go-kart?
There’s nobody driving it around like a rally car, no.