Future Tense

Forget the Nerdy Image: Mars Rover Curiosity Team Includes “Mohawk Guy” and Former Rock ‘n’ Roller

Bobak Ferdowsi, NASA's "mohawk guy."

Bobak Ferdowsi, NASA’s “mohawk guy.”

Photo by Brian van der Brug-Pool/Getty Images

When the rover Curiosity landed successfully on Mars late Sunday night (Pacific time), the men and women at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory hugged, yelled, and jumped around like they had just won the gold medal. As my Future Tense colleague Will Oremus pointed out earlier today, Deputy Project Manager Richard Cook said, shortly after the landing, “That rocked! Seriously, was that not cool?” Indeed, cool may be the buzzword of the mission.

Last week, Morning Edition profiled Adam Steltzner, leader of the Entry, Descent, and Landing team for Curiosity. Much of the report focused on Steltzner’s cool cred and unexpected transition from under achiever to NASA engineer. “He has pierced ears, wears snakeskin boots and sports an Elvis haircut,” said Morning Edition’s Joe Palca. His first car: a ’69 Cadillac hearse, in which he placed a bed. After high school (in which he “”was sort of studying sex, drugs and rock and roll”), Steltzner tried to make it as a rock star instead of heading to college. But while heading home after a late-night gig, Orion caught his eye, so he headed to community college and, eventually, NASA.

Another new NASA celebrity sports not an Elvis ‘do, but a mohawk with stars shaved into the sides. Bobak Ferdowsi, flight director for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission, caught the Internet’s eye with his remarkably un-nerdy haircut. According to the Atlantic’s Megan Garber, he changes his hair every mission. “[T]his particular coif was the one voted on, for the Curiosity landing, by the rest of his team. It was meant to be patriotic as well as cosmic: Apparently the original design was supposed to incorporate blue,” Garber writes.

The coif inspired a meme and, of course, a Tumblr. “Fuck Yeah Bob Ferdowsi” features Ferdowsi-inspired artwork, plus a few propositions. As evidence of his newfound fame, Buzzfeed notes that Ferdowsi went from fewer than 200 Twitter followers to more than 21,000 in less than 24 hours.

Perhaps NASA is taking lessons from the brogrammers. For all the downsides of the bro-iness, the culture has certainly made computer science look less nerdy (not that that’s a bad thing). NASA has been exploring new ways to make space seem cool and, one assumes, keep it safe from even deeper budget cuts. For instance, the agency has partnered with Tor/Forge Books to create “NASA-inspired fiction” for young readers “to attract and retain students focused on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] studies, strengthening the agency and the nation’s future workforce.” Engineers with mohawks might help make the field more attractive, too.

But as one who wears a pocket protector on her heart, if not in her shirt, I hope that there’s always a place for nerds in space.