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kid reporter emily shao  interview bobak ferdowsi Bobak Ferdowsi, Flight Director, Mars Curiosity Rover, talks with Kid Reporter Emily Shao before the first-ever State of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Event (SoSTEM), Wednesday, February 13, 2013 in Washington. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Mars and Mohawks

Engineer Bobak Ferdowsi talks Curiosity rover, STEM education

By Emily Shao | February 22 , 2013

Before the State of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (SoSTEM) meeting at the White House last Wednesday, Scholastic Kid Reporter Emily Shao interviewed Bobak Ferdowsi. Ferdowsi works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he uses his STEM education as the flight director for the Mars Curiosity Program. He's also known as the Mohawk Guy at NASA because of his unique hairstyle.

In his interview with Emily, Ferdowsi shares his experiences working on the Curiosity mission, how he got interested in engineering, and why it's important for kids to get a good STEM education.

Mission to Mars

Kid Reporter: What is Curiosity's mission?

Bobak Ferdowsi: We want to find out whether Mars can support life, and the basic ingredients we need.

Kid Reporter: How fast does a rover move on Mars?

Bobak Ferdowsi: It moves about 1.7 inch per second, which is slower than humans.

Kid Reporter: What is the Curiosity rover's power source? Does it use batteries?

Bobak Ferdowsi: It uses batteries that are charged beforehand, and its main power source comes from specific generators. The temperature difference, solar heat, or light can make power also. It generates 117 watts of power, which is like an old light bulb.

Kid Reporter: Curiosity landed on Mars back in August. What have you found so far?  
 
Bobak Ferdowsi: We are confirming a lot of what we thought. Right now, we are drilling into rocks. We haven't found anything surprising, but we are confirming a lot of things.

Kid Reporter: Do you believe life ever existed on Mars?

Bobak Ferdowsi: I don't think so, but it could have supported life in a period of Mars history, just not right now.

Kid Reporter: What kinds of difficulties have you faced on this mission, and how have you solved them?

Bobak Ferdowsi: Well, we met a lot of difficulties. For example, right after the launch of Curiosity, we had computer reset. So we had to understand why it happened and come up with a way to work around the software. We also had to maneuver it, all within a critical period of time.

Kid Reporter: How far away is Mars?

Bobak Ferdowsi: Right now Mars is at the opposite side of the Sun, so it is 2.5 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Kid Reporter: Have you worked on other missions while at JPL?

Bobak Ferdowsi: Sure. I worked on the Cassini Mission, which is the investigation of the Saturn System, and it was a fun experience.

Kid Reporter: What is the coolest part of your job?

Bobak Ferdowsi: Well, I get to work with some of the people that I've always thought were my heroes. For example, when I was little, I saw the [Mars] Pathfinder [rover] landing. That was the first mission I saw that went to Mars. Now, I get to work with the same people who helped make that mission successful.

Working in a STEM Career

Kid Reporter: How did you get interested in science and engineering?

Bobak Ferdowsi: I was always a curious kid. I loved to play LEGOs and read science fiction. I loved to understand how things work and always have the desire to understand science. I liked to feel and create things. So, engineering was a good fit for me.

Kid Reporter: How did you get interested in the space program?

Bobak Ferdowsi: Space is always cool, and science fiction was just a part of it. Growing up watching the space shuttle was a big part of it. I always thought seeing pictures from another planet through a machine a human built were amazing. At that moment, I realized that was what I want to do.

Kid Reporter: Science and engineering are obviously important to your job. But how do you use those skills in everyday life?

Bobak Ferdowsi: When my grandmother's vacuum was broken, I fixed it. (laughs) When I see something in the world, I ask how it works, such as the simple thought of how birds fly. You must have a sense of curiosity to how things happen.

Why Kids Need a STEM Education

Kid Reporter: Why is it important for kids to be good at STEM subjects in school?

Bobak Ferdowsi: As a country, we have a lot of challenges, like using less fossil fuel, having enough food supply, and treating diseases, and engineering and science are really going to help us address them. So it's really important to get kids involved early in understanding how things work, along with having fun. If kids see that in early age, then they might come join us at NASA or other places one day.

Kid Reporter: The President mentioned STEM in his speech last night. Do you have any specific ideas about how we can improve STEM education?

Bobak Ferdowsi: I think we should encourage the kids. Kids tend to ask the right kind of science questions, anyway. For example, every time I give a talk, I always feel like the questions the kids ask are really fundamental. We want to encourage that process rather than give them the answer. We want to give them approach.

What's Next?

Kid Reporter: What is the next big project?

Bobak Ferdowsi: We're working on the Orion Crew Capsule, which is the next generation spacecraft.

Kid Reporter: Are you building more space rovers for it?
 
Bobak Ferdowsi: Yes, we are building another rover for 2020 mission to Mars. It is similar in size as Curiosity, and we're having a naming convention for it.

Kid Reporter: Have you started to think about the hairstyle for your next project?

Bobak Ferdowsi: No, definitely not. (laughs) Anyway, my hair will probably be mostly gray by that time, so I think I'll go with that.

When the Curiosity rover landed on Mars, Kid Reporter Miranda Rector was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Relive the tense, exciting moments in her on-the-scene report!

Check out Kid Reporter Emily Shao's story about the first-ever SoSTEM event. And let us know how important you think STEM education is on the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps Blog!

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