NASA Engineer Bobak Ferdowsi Talks Space Missions & Life On Mars For Oyster #109
"It's truly an amazing time to be alive."
NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi is rarely seen without his headset on and that's because he's working on some pretty important stuff, like sending robots into space and figuring out if Mars is habitable. We talked to Bobak about his cool job for Oyster #109: The Tomorrow Issue.
NASA's 'Mohawk Guy', Bobak Ferdowsi, may be at the frontier of cosmic exploration, but really he just wants everyone here on Earth to get along.
Natalie Shukur: What ignited your interest in science and space?
Bobak Ferdowsi: From childhood I always wanted to understand how things worked but it was really the summer of 1997, when NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory landed a small rover on the surface of Mars, that made me want to pursue a career in space. It was the first time that you could really see what was happening on the surface of another planet, almost live — within 24 hours. I couldn't believe there were people whose jobs included driving a car on Mars.
What do you do at NASA?
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of the lead centres in robotic, uncrewed exploration. We have the exciting job of sending explorers to places it is difficult to send humans, to help better understand our planet, our solar system and our universe. My job is to help design, test, and operate spacecraft by understanding and coordinating the interactions of how the many parts of a spacecraft work together — what we call systems engineering.
I imagine there's not a typical day…
The great thing about this job is no two days are really the same. When we start a project we spend time building analytical models and simulations to help us make the right design decisions. That involves a mix of meetings and working individually. When we get to build and test — my favourite part — we're in a mix of clean rooms and environments meant to simulate what the spacecraft will see, and we're always learning about how things really work, constantly solving problems and working to make sure things are ready to launch. From launch onwards we're where most people would recognise — our mission control rooms, looking at telemetry and sending commands to the spacecraft.
You've been credited with 'making NASA cool'. How do you feel about that?
For me NASA has always been cool; the idea that when people come together we can achieve things that could only be dreamed of by previous generations is amazing. I grew up fascinated by the idea that people could live and work in space, that we could send spacecraft to other planets and see galaxies billions of light years away, all of which NASA helped make possible. I hope that all I've really done is to help people realise that NASA is full of all kinds of people, and that you can be yourself but also contribute to what we do here.
Do you think the current generation is more or less aware of the work of NASA?
It feels like I see more images of space and references to NASA in popular culture than ever before. From images of galaxies on clothing to primetime television shows referencing missions, and even characters who work at NASA — it's everywhere. That being said, it's really important for us to communicate not just the excitement and inspiration of space, but also how it impacts our lives, which has been a big part of what makes social media great — we can share those stories and interact with people every day.
You were an integral part of the Curiosity mission. Why was it so important?
Curiosity was designed to help us learn whether Mars was or is habitable — meaning, without looking for life itself, whether life could have survived in the past or today. What we found — very quickly — is that the Mars of a few billion years ago was wet and that the water where Curiosity landed could have supported life. It fundamentally helps put a context around life on Earth and perhaps throughout the cosmos — if Mars was habitable, how many other places in the universe could be?
Your next mission is a flyby of Europa, one of Jupiter's icy moons. What's happening there that has you so interested and excited?
Europa is answering a very similar question to what Curiosity did — trying to understand whether this moon of Jupiter could be habitable. What we learned with previous missions like Voyager and Galileo is that Europa very likely has a global ocean beneath a surface of ice. We think that life requires chemistry, energy, water, and time, and what we do know of Europa indicates that those are all present. Like Mars, if these icy moons can be habitable we can start looking for life and answer one of the big questions: are we alone?
What are your biggest hopes and concerns for tomorrow?
It's truly an amazing time to be alive. I think this coming era is an incredible time for humanity — cars that drive themselves, robots that assist us in our daily lives, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, vacations in space, people living on another planet. My hope is that we don't leave people behind and only a few people get to experience this new future, but [rather] that all of us can share in these achievements together. At the same time, we will certainly face challenges with ensuring a growing population has water, food and necessities for life, all amid climate change. I believe these issues are all solvable but we definitely need people to pursue science and engineering to address them.
Do you have an ethos, mantra or philosophy you live by?
Leave things better than you found them.
Words: Natalie Shukur
Photography: Jenny Hueston