Science TED Conferences

Life on Mars: A Q&A with aerospace engineer (and meme-magnet) Bobak Ferdowsi

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Bobak Ferdowsi TEDYouth Q+A

Teen reporters Sadie Cruz and Nia Ashley conducted lots of interviews with speakers at the TEDYouth conference on November 17. Their Q&As will run on the TED Blog over the next few weeks. Below, an interview conducted by Nia.

The Flight Director of the Mars Curiosity Mission, Bobak Ferdowsi, is best known for landing a two-ton rover on Mars. But “Mohawk Guy,” as he’s called by his thousands of Internet followers, is also famed for representing the uniqueness of NASA.

He sat down with me the night before his TEDYouth talk to discuss Mars, his unexpected celebrity and how soon I can hope to report to the USS Enterprise.

Nia Ashley: So, you led a mission on Mars. That’s kind of awesome. Can you talk about that for a second?

Bobak Ferdowsi: I worked on the Mars Science Lab Curiosity Mission. It’s been about nine years for me. I ended up as Flight Director for crews and landing operations. I don’t know, it’s kind of the coolest thing I’ve ever done.

NA: What does a flight director do?

BF: Basically, we have this responsibility to make sure that the activities that we’re executing are safe for the spacecraft, to make sure we understand the consequences if something goes wrong. What are our outs? What are we going to do? And then I work with the team, both when they design the activity and when they execute the activity, to make sure that we have all those bases covered.

NA: What if you had dropped [the rover] and it had just bounced and flipped over on its back like a turtle?

BF: That would have been the end of the game, I guess. There’s no way to turn it back right side up once it’s on Mars.

NA: So, what is your typical day, now that the flight happened?

BF: Basically, activities fall into two categories. We have activities based on what happened the day before — like, we discovered a rock and we want to go investigate the rock. But we also have activities that we know we want to do in a month or so — like, we want to try drilling on Mars. So we want to understand: what are all the interactions that have to happen there? Part of what I’m working on right now is making sure those activities are all ready to go when the time comes.

NA: Why do you think that we on Earth are so obsessed with finding life on other planets?

BF: I think it’s such a natural human endeavor to understand: what is our place in the universe? We have this amazing planet, and all this amazing stuff going on around us, but where does that fit into the scheme of things? Other planets, they’re not so different from us, and you think, “What if there’s life? What if it’s like us? What might be different?”

It’s hard because we have one data point: I live on the Earth. Arguably, we have a lot of data about that one point, but then you’re trying to understand: Would life [on other planets] be more intelligent than us? Does it ever really get past bacteria? What is it going to look like? It’s a slow process of scientific understanding.

NA: You are an Internet sensation. Do you appreciate the fact that you’ve made science cool? Or is it, “I have a job to do?”

BF: I love my job, so I focus on that, but I am excited about bringing attention to what I think is a really cool job. I love that people see me as looking different — which I actually don’t! This is what most engineers and scientists look like nowadays. The perception is dated, so it’s cool for kids to see that and to realize, you can be your own person. It takes all sorts of types and looks and everything else to get these missions to happen. We had 3,000 people on this project — a variety of backgrounds, both educationally and culturally and everything. And it’s cool that that’s been shown in a new light.

NA: What do you think is more likely: Martians or life on one of the Galilean moons, like Europa or Titan?

BF: Tough question. I’m a big fan of Europa. I love Mars, I think it’s really amazing, but we’ve been there and it doesn’t look like there’s life there.  Europa is kind of shrouded in mystery, like Mars was in the early days. Ice moon, very likely ocean in the center, it’s warmer, volcanic — and we know that life exists on the Earth at the very bottom of the ocean near these volcanic vents. So it seems like the possibility is there for life to exist.

NA: How close are we to Star Trek? Because that’s what I want.

BF: I think we’re a ways away from Star Trek. But one of the cool things about Star Trek that I loved, and I think it’s still true, is that we are increasingly moving towards international cooperation in all that we do. We’re not going to have warp drive, probably, or transporters anytime soon, but the idea that all these countries are coming together, it’s a planetary endeavor to explore space, I think we’re getting there pretty fast.

NA: If you could meet your teenage self today, what’s something that you would tell them?

BF: It gets better? No, you know, it’s so funny, but as a sort of nerdy person, you feel a little ostracized as a kid, and yet we’re living in this era now where it’s okay to be nerdy. In fact, it’s kind of more relevant and cool. It gives me hope. I would have told my teenage self that. Like, “Listen, in 10 years you’re going to love that you read all this sci-fi. In your room. Without any friends.”

Curious about Bobak Ferdowsi’s favorite TED Talks? Check out his playlist, “On our home in the universe” >>