The Curiosity Landing Already Has a Meme: NASA's 'Mohawk Guy'

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As millions tuned in to watch the livestream and the television coverage of tonight's (successful) Curiosity landing, one Mission Control staffer stood out among the others: a dude with a mohawk. And not just any mohawk: an intricate red and black affair, with yellow stars dyed in the sides of the wearer's head.

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The wearer, it turns out, was mission Activity Lead Bobak Ferdowsi, manning the controls in NASA's self-imposed sea of powder-blue polos. Ferdowsi gets a new hairdo for each new mission -- and this particular coif was the one voted on, for the Curiosity landing, by the rest of his team. It was meant to be patriotic as well as cosmic: Apparently the original design was supposed to incorporate blue.

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The hairdo, its empiric awesomeness aside, was also a visual symbol of the humanity at the core of NASA's achievements. We may associate the agency with rockets and robots and missions to places that are distinctly inhuman; Ferdowsi's mohawk, though, served as a reminder of the individual people -- the quirky people -- who make all that progress possible. So, as the Internet waited for news of the Curiosity rover's fate, it cast its collective gaze on Ferdowsi -- not just as the bearer of an excellent hairstyle, but as a proxy for every person who made the rover's tension-filled landing, ultimately, a success. 

And the Internet rewarded Ferdowsi's daring 'do in the best way it knows how: by making it into a meme. An instant one. The Internet gave Ferdowsi, in the space of an hour, a dedicated Tumblr. It gave him tags on Tumblr. It gave him a specialized visual taxonomy, featuring images categorized as, for example, "Smiling Bobak," "Nervous Bobak," "Teamwork Bobak," and "Busy Bobak." And it gave Ferdowsi, who tweets at @tweetsoutloud, a cosmic rise in Twitter followers: nearly 8,000 of them in the past couple hours, up from a mere 200 before tonight.

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In return, Ferdowsi gave the Internet, as it waited for news of Curiosity's fate, what every meme provides: something to talk about -- and something to rally around.

"Forget the thick black framed glasses, polyester ties and pocket protectors of the control room staff at the Apollo landings," one writer put it -- "this is the face of 21st century NASA!"

Indeed. And, fortunately, that face is very good-natured about its instant Internet celebrity.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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