Two NASA engineers gave insight into the Mars rover Curiosity and the future of space exploration to a capacity-crowd at the Colvard Student Union ballroom.
Bobak “Mohawk” Ferdowsi and Adam “Elvis” Steltzner explained the significance of NASA projects, saying that exploring other worlds will ultimately increase the understanding of Earth.
“To me, what makes exploring Mars interesting is that it’s so much like Earth and yet it obviously didn’t turn out the same way,” Ferdowsi said. “What makes Earth so special? To understand that you can’t just look at Earth.”
Ferdowsi and Steltzner are part of the team that developed, launched and operates Curiosity, serving as flight director and systems engineer, and leader of the entry, descent and landing science laboratory, respectively. However, most recognize them not by their titles, but rather their unique hairstyles.
Ferdowsi, sporting a red, white and blue mohawk, and Steltzner, with a rock ‘n’ roll look, became two of the space agency’s most recognizable faces during the live broadcast of the rover’s August 2012 landing—simultaneously intriguing the world through their work and proving that engineers can have spunk.
“People weren’t expecting to see someone with a mohawk,” Ferdowsi explained. “But, (at NASA) we have a history of showing off our personalities.”
Although the two never expected to become Internet sensations, the engineers have been able to use their newfound status to help feed the widespread national interest in space. Visiting with audiences across the country, they share information about the rover’s findings on Mars.
“We’ve discovered some pretty cool stuff,” Steltzner said. “We found bubbles in rocks that look like the bubbles that are put off by bacteria. Now, we don’t know that it is that, but it’s pretty cool. Water is down there and there may have been life in the past.”
Being part of the Curiosity team has both engineers excited about future space projects, including the 2020 exploratory mission to Mars. Announced earlier this year, the project likely will feature more intense sampling of the red planet and, possibly, prepare a sample that could be returned to Earth.
“I’m excited because it’s another clean slate and just thinking, what are we going to do this time,” Ferdowsi said.
For the next rover, Ferdowsi said he would like to see a variety of landing sites considered and an improvement in the vehicle’s driving capabilities. In a future mission he said he would like to explore Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter, that scientists suspect has water under its frozen surface.
“On Earth, where there’s water, there’s life,” Ferdowsi said. “So, it begs the question, is there something under the ice of Europa?”
While there’s no mission to Europa in the works, yet, Ferdowsi is optimistic that it will happen one day—possibly helmed by some of the youngest student engineers Ferdowsi and Steltzner met during their Starkville visit.
Prior to the evening’s main event, the Bagley College’s Distinguished Lecture Series also sponsored a morning session for middle and high school teams from Mississippi’s Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology (MS BEST) Robotics Program.
Ferdowsi and Steltzner watched demonstrations of the teams’ handmade space elevators that were built as part of the six-week competition. Afterward, the two helped the students see how what they learned during BEST relates to what NASA engineers do in real-life.
Steltzner said he was impressed by the creativity and precision of what he saw in the students’ projects. However, he never had the benefit of such competitions while in school.
“If programs like that existed, I wasn’t doing them,” Steltzner said. “I was too busy chasing girls and getting in trouble.”
The rock ‘n’ roll engineer explained that he started out as a musician. It was curiosity about changes in the night sky that led him to take a college course in astronomy. And it was that class’s physics prerequisite that ultimately led him to attend college and eventually earn a doctorate.
Steltzner said he believes that if the students never lose touch with their creativity, they are destined to be the next generation of great thinkers and doers.
“I think the important thing is that kids are in touch with their curiosity; that they are fired-up about something, find what their passion is and follow it,” Steltzner said.