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New geek chic at NASA: Mohawks in, pocket protectors out
PASADENA, Calif. -- Known to the Twitterverse and the president of the United States as "Mohawk Guy" of the Mars mission, Bobak Ferdowsi could be the changing public face of NASA and all of geekdom.
Ferdowsi, whose shaved scalp also features star shapes, is a flight director for the Mars rover Curiosity -- a mission that captured the nation's imagination with its odds-defying, acrobatic landing.
And Mohawk Guy isn't the only star. There's also former rock 'n' roller Adam Steltzner, sometimes called "Elvis Guy" because of his pompadour and sideburns.
Steltzner directed the daring landing of the rover and appears in a NASA movie trailer describing why the Aug. 5 Mars landing involved "seven minutes of terror." The movie, posted on YouTube, became a hit.
"You guys are a little cooler than you used to be," President Barack Obama said in a Monday congratulatory phone call to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Given Ferdowsi's success, Obama, a "Star Trek" fan, joked about the Mohawk and suggested he might try it: "I think that I'm going to go back to my team and see if it makes sense."
Mohawk Guy's Twitter followers have soared to more than 50,000. Over the weekend, he and the 49-year-old Steltzner appeared on NPR's game show, "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me." He's been doing Google+ hangouts. And, oh yes, he's gotten marriage proposals.
Strange hairstyles are a tradition for the 32-year-old Ferdowsi, who once donned a cut that was supposed to resemble a rocket plume -- red, orange and gold.
Ferdowsi couldn't be reached for comment, but he tweeted late Monday: "So incredible to have the POTUS call work today & thank the team! Still can't believe @BarackObama called me mohawk guy!"
Last week, in a Los Angeles Times interview, he acknowledged his haircut might be "a little bit of a shock" to some. He said most people think of the serious, button-downed Apollo 13 NASA.
But he noted that in 1967, engineers at his workplace, Jet Propulsion Lab, or JPL, wore Spock ears for the launch of a Venus-bound spacecraft. In fact, the California operation is more like the Berkeley of NASA.
In the unmanned world of space robotics, engineers are just as detail-obsessed as Mission Control in Houston. But JPL doesn't handle life-or-death astronaut missions, and more risks can be taken. Such as the landing system of Mars Curiosity that used a giant parachute, retrorockets and the gentle controlled lowering of the one-ton rover with cables.
It was all run by Steltzner, who twice got F's in high school math, initially skipped college to play music and enjoys making his own jam.
The JPL missions are run in a creative conclave nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles and managed by the California Institute of Technology for NASA. JPL prides itself on its university-like atmosphere. Some engineers come to work in Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops. Others sport hippie hairstyles.
"The button-down white shirts and ties were always in Houston; they were not here," said Gentry Lee, who is chief engineer for planetary flight systems at JPL and is one of Ferdowsi's bosses.
"The people who have been flying robotic missions have always been about substance and not about appearances," Lee said. But he said most people who don't know NASA didn't know that until now.
"Geeks have hit pop culture," said Ken Denmead, editor and publisher of geekdad.com. "I think more than any other single event in the last five or 10 years, this [Mars landing] has put a face on science and engineering that really gets future generations excited.
"People like Bobak and the whole crew on the Curiosity landing just shatter that (pocket protector) mode and that's wonderful," Denmead, a San Francisco civil engineer, said in a phone interview.
With hit television shows celebrating geeks, like "The Big Bang Theory," science-lover Obama in the White House, and especially regular people using more technology in their daily lives, Denmead sees what he calls "normals" becoming more geeklike. And geeks are becoming more social thanks to Twitter and Facebook.
"The communications barriers have come down between the geeks and the normals if you want," Denmead said. "The differences have faded away."