While NASA’s team was accomplishing the incredible feat of landing its Curiosity rover on Mars, the legendary Mohawk Guy, spotted throughout NASA TV’s livestream Sunday evening, rapidly became an Internet sensation, Twitter trend, beloved meme, and object of Tumblr affection.
But Mohawk Guy isn’t just a fun haircut. He’s Bobak Ferdowsi — the Flight Director on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission. And once he went viral, it didn’t take tweeps long to find his Twitter account, @tweetsoutloud — which shot from 200 followers to over 20,000 overnight.
Shira caught up with Bobak to learn more about his rise to online stardom, his eccentric hairstyles, and, of course, what it takes to land on Mars.
Bobak, who has been working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for nine years — also the length of this mission — describes the setting of his job as a (not-so-dramatic but still exciting) real-life version of the Apollo 13 movie. When he started in 2003, he was a part of a 50 person team at JPL and now, combined with NASA, they’ve had roughly 3,500 people working on the mission.
The camaraderie was palpable late Sunday night as online viewers cheered the team on during and after the successful landing.
Also evident was NASA’s integration of social media, as the agency took measures to livestream the historic event, tweet from @NASA with the #MSL hashtag, and set up the @MarsCuriosity Twitter account, from the point of view of the brave rover.
Bobak spoke of the permissible use of smartphones: “As long as it wasn’t distracting us from actually keeping an eye on the spacecraft, it was OK.”
Onto the famed mohawk — at what point did Bobak realize he was becoming an Internet sensation?
“It really wasn’t until a couple of hours after we landed…and I started looking at my phone and I’m seeing hundreds of emails and Facebook friend requests,” he said.
In order to bring some levity to the high-stress mission, Bobak revealed that his team voted on the theme and colors he would use for his hair, which has been a fun gag for big events on the project. He even says this ‘do was more subtle compared to others. We want pictures!
Though they may have never seen it coming, the now legendary hairstyle brought some seriously positive buzz to the big event.
“If my mohawk gets a few more people excited about science and this mission, that’s awesome,” Bobak said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Bobak (and his hair) stood as an symbol of individuality and unique expression throughout the Mars livestream, which Bobak sees as a sign that “you don’t have to look like the guys in the skinny ties and the white shirts…you can be whatever you want. As long as you have a passion for this thing, it’s a great job.”
Bobak will continue as Flight Director on the project, exploring his excitement for science and inspiring others to join him.
“It’s a lot of fun to do this…and of course the science that we’re going to get in the next couple of years — understanding habitability — that’s big not just for Mars, that’s big for us, too,” he said. “If Mars could’ve hosted life at one point, maybe that means there’s other planets out there, too.”