By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - While dozens of rocket scientists packed NASA's mission control room during a much-vaunted landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, no one made a bigger impression on viewers glued to live TV and Internet coverage of the event than spike-haired Bobak Ferdowsi.
The 32-year-old flight engineer, better known to Mars-struck fans as the NASA Mohawk Guy, became an overnight Internet sensation and helped generate online buzz for Curiosity, thanks largely to his stars-and-stripes punk-rock hairdo and his hunky good looks.
Ferdowsi, a native of Oakland, California, with a graduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has worn eccentric hairstyles for big missions and projects throughout his nine-year tenure at NASA, as a kind of good-luck tradition.
For the occasion of Curiosity's landing on Sunday night, colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena held a vote to choose a special new look -- a Mohawk dyed red and blue and adorned with stars and stripes.
The look transformed Ferdowsi into an instant aerospace rock star among legions of Mars enthusiasts.
Some 44,000 new followers flocked to his Twitter account as fans circulated viral "memes" with his image, bombarded him with marriage proposals and created dedicated feeds on the micro-blogging site Tumblr, such as the "NASA Needs More Mohawks" page.
Ferdowsi said he was shocked at the burst of attention.
"I didn't realize that our landing would be such a heavily watched thing. I'm so glad people were as excited to watch that landing as I was. But to wake up the next morning and find tons of people have a newfound interest in me, or think that I'm the new face of NASA, is crazy," he told Reuters.
SOCIAL MEDIA SENSATION
As a flight engineer during the last hours before Curiosity's do-or-die daredevil landing, Ferdowsi and his peers at mission control actually had little to do but track the self-guided spacecraft's progression as it neared its destination.
One of his last tasks before the vessel streaked into the Martian atmosphere at hypersonic speed was to send signals to the craft reorienting its computer hardware and power modules for its entry, descent and landing mode, he said.
The $2.5 billion rover mission is designed to search for signs of life-friendly habitats on Mars.
The team's successful landing and subsequent celebrations were streamed across the world, and since then, Ferdowsi said his sudden fame has elicited considerable good-natured ribbing from co-workers.
"I wouldn't work here if I thought it was the stodgy NASA of yore. We're still nerds and geeks here. There's no doubt about it. We're just a little more comfortable expressing ourselves," Ferdowsi said.
Moreover, his alternative look appears to have resonated with budding scientists and engineers of the future.
"It's really awesome that people can somehow relate to me in a way that they didn't think they could relate to people here before," the engineer said. "If they think that they can be themselves and work here, that's rewarding."
The live stream of Sunday's rover landing gained the most viewers NASA has seen so far online, according to social media manager Veronica McGregor. Twitter hash tags such as "Mars Curiosity," "JPL," and "Mars landing" became worldwide trending topics, and more than 800,000 users followed the @MarsCuriosity Twitter feed in the final stage of Curiosity's voyage.
While the intensity of the Internet frenzy caught everyone at NASA by surprise, the social media team has already been working with science institutions around the country to open a dialogue between NASA scientists and students.
JPL hopes to enlist Ferdowsi as a spokesman for the two-year Curiosity mission at future public events.
"It's turning engineers into rock stars," JPL social media specialist Courtney O'Connor said. "If you have elementary school kids who now want to go into science to learn about this, that's amazing."
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Steve Gorman and Lisa Shumaker)