08 August 2012

Starhawk and the Mars Curiosity Rover

Doesn’t that sound like a good name for the next Harry Potter-style series of children’s books? And it would be totally better because, unlike Harry Potter*, you really could grow up to become like “Starhawk,” one of the Internet's nicknames for NASA’s Bobak Ferdowsi.
*Haha, kids! There is no Hogwarts! YOU CAN’T DO MAGIC. Now go back to your cupboard.

Within hours of his team successfully landing a 1-ton, 6-wheeled vehicle in a crater on Mars, a mission in progress for the last 8-10 years, Activity Lead Bobak Ferdowsi was an internet sensation. His “Captain America” mohawk stood out in the sea of powder-blue polos in NASA’s control room, quickly noticed by the thousands watching via livestream.

NASA Activity Lead Bobak Ferdowsi for the Mars Curiosity Landing
Picture by Callie Leuck.
Activity Lead Bobak Ferdowsi of NASA, who changes his hairstyle
for every mission, became an instant Internet celebrity
for his "Captain America" mohawk.

Nobody should be surprised, really, that people zeroed in on a person -- we seek that human connection, after all. We had that with the astronauts. My alma mater, Purdue, is immensely proud of its astronauts, and in my four years on the main campus, there must have been dozen of astronauts giving speeches on campus**, in addition to erecting a statue of Neil Armstrong on the north side of campus.

**What struck me most about astronaut Andrew Feustel is the almost-reverent way he talked about the return to Earth, which I wrote about.

But with the shuttle program over and the shuttles escorted in style to museums, I’ve been wondering -- is this the end of the astronauts? What what will give Americans that human connection to the space program?

I think that question has been answered in the memedom of Bobak Ferdowsi. I mean, it’s basically like being knighted by the Internet. We dub thee Sir Starhawk.

Certainly Mr. Ferdowsi didn’t land the Curiosity Rover on Mars all by his lonesome. This event is the culmination of the work of hundreds or thousands of people -- scientists and engineers -- and a decade in the making.

Oh, and major props to NASA for their public communication efforts. At 2 AM, I got to join the thousands of others watching the control room live, with news from Mars on a 14-minute delay, which is as near to live as you can get: it takes that long for data to travel at light speed from Mars to Earth. The tension in the control room, the excitement, and the resulting explosion of happiness was one of the most exciting things I’ve seen. I’m tearing up a little as I type this. It’s amazing to see this kind of success, and it’s exciting to think of what we might learn on Mars.

Landing a rover on Mars might seem like a baby step in comparison to the imaginings we see in sci-fi books, film, and TV shows. But if science fiction is correct in its predictions that humanity will spread across the galaxy, this is a necessary step in that direction. Could we have an outpost on Mars in the next 50 years? I don’t know, but it’s a conversation that is legitimately happening right now, and that gives me the shivers in the best of ways.

But it seems likely that we will have a lot of extremely expensive, extremely complicated projects to pull off before we send a human out of Earth’s orbit; and it seems likely we won’t be seeing a lot of astronauts in the meantime. But still, we’ll need to engage people in the space program, and we’ll still need to have a connection to the projects, something to grasp and get excited about. NASA has been doing a great job with this via their livestream and their social media outreach -- especially the team tweeting as the Curiosity Rover with the handle @MarsCuriosity.

NASA Curiosity Rover tweets from Mars in the Gale Crater
Picture by Callie Leuck.
tweet from the Curiosity Rover, upon landing in the Gale Crater on Mars. 

Still, I think there’s no harm in the enthusiastic memedom of Starhawk. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past two and a half years studying science writing***, it’s that people are compelling. I may have several different hats as a writer, but I think of myself primarily as a storyteller, and if you give people a person to connect with the science, they are more enthusiastic about the story. They’ll learn the science that you’re telling them about because you’ve made them care about the character.
***And trust me, I've learned a lot more than one thing.

So please, Internet, do get excited about awesome scientists/engineers. Share. Show your children. Let’s make sure that even if we don’t have astronauts walking on the moon, our kids have some clear images of kickass scientists and engineers. Because science is pretty darn cool.