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.
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.
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.
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.
You guys, there is a guy working at NASA who has a mohawk! PUNK SCIENCE!-- Lindsay Pavlas (@LindsayPavlas) August 6, 2012
i don't know much about science but I'm pretty sure we couldn't have done it without Mohawk Guy-- Danny Baranowsky (@dannyBstyle) August 6, 2012
"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.