Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!
Fri August 10, 2012
Not My Job: We Quiz NASA Engineers On Mars Candy
Originally published on Sat August 11, 2012 10:07 am
On Sunday night, while the rest of us were ooohing and aaahing over gymnastics, a bunch of propeller heads at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were flawlessly steering a billion-dollar robotic space laboratory the size of a minivan to a landing on Mars.
Missions engineers Bobak Ferdowsi and Adam Steltzner — whose hairstyles have led them to be nicknamed "Mokawk guy" and "Elvis guy," respectively — are two of the guys behind the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, and very well might be the Sexiest Nerds Ever.
We've invited Ferdowsi and Steltzner to play a game called "Try landing on this Mars!" Believe it or not, it is actually easier to get a camera onto the surface of planet Mars than into the factory of the incredibly secretive Mars candy company. We'll ask two experts on Mars the planet three questions about Mars the candy.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now, the game where we force smart people do something dumb.
CARL KASELL: Last Sunday night, while the rest of us were oohing and aahing over women's gymnastics or some silliness, a bunch of propeller heads at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed to flawlessly steer a billion dollar robotic space lab the size of a mini-van to a pinpoint landing on Mars. Two of the guys who did that very cool thing, Bobak Ferdowski and Adam Steltzner of JPL join us now. Bobak and Adam, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!.
SAGAL: So, first of all, let's identify you guys. Bobak, you are known now, I believe all of the world as the Mohawk Guy.
BOBAK FERDOWSKI: That's me.
SAGAL: That's you, OK.
SAGAL: And before you became the Mohawk Guy, what was your title?
FERDOWSKI: I was a flight director, or I still am, a flight director on the Mars Science Lab Mission.
SAGAL: No, now you're the Mohawk Guy.
SAGAL: I'm sorry. I checked the internet. That's who you are. And Adam, you are known also colloquially as the Elvis Hair Guy.
ADAM STELTZNER: Yes, it's a heavy responsibility.
SAGAL: Right, to be the Elvis Hair Guy. And Adam, what is your job at JPL?
STELTZNER: I'm in charge of the landing of Curiosity.
TOM BODETT: How'd that go?
AMY DICKINSON: Yeah.
STELTZNER: Yeah, we could talk about that.
SAGAL: So let's talk about the unimportant stuff and then we'll get to your hair.
SAGAL: So Bobak, you're the flight director and Adam, you were in charge of the landing. The landing was so insanely complicated, where you had the heat shied and the parachute and the sky crane and all this cool stuff. How in the world did you know it would work?
STELTZNER: You know, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting and we didn't really know it would work. I had the hardest time believing it would work myself. You know, we made models of it in computers and we tested pieces that we thought we could test. But in the end, you never know if it's all going to come together.
SAGAL: Right. So basically the first time that you ever actually tried this in the real world was on Mars on Sunday?
STELTZNER: Yes, that's correct.
SAGAL: Wow. So Adam, tell me about your background. Because what we read, you were like a rock and roll guy for a while, right?
STELTZNER: Right. I was not the best student in high school. So I stopped going to high school.
STELTZNER: And started playing music. And after a few years of that, playing rock and roll in the San Francisco Bay area, I became intrigued at the fact that there were a different set of stars in the sky as I'd drive home from playing a show as there had been when I went to the show. And I had some vague recollection about something moving with respect to something else. But I frankly didn't really know what it was.
BODETT: But then you stopped taking drugs, right?
STELTZNER: That's right.
SAGAL: And so then you...
STELTZNER: So then I went down to the local community college to try and figure out why those stars were moving. Then I started to make up for my lack of high school education, so on and so forth, and then I'm here.
SAGAL: Right. Congratulations.
SAGAL: And what had you done to sort of qualify yourself to be the guy in charge of landing this rover?
STELTZNER: That's a really good question. I continually ask myself that.
SAGAL: And Bobak, you were the flight director. What does that mean?
FERDOWSKI: I'm sort of like that Ed Harris character in "Apollo 13." But our job is decidedly less dramatic, except for those last seven minutes.
SAGAL: Really? So you're the guy who's in charge of, like being in the middle of the room and sort of shouting out commands to people...
FERDOWSKI: That's right.
SAGAL: ...as they stare at monitors.
FERDOWSKI: Pretty much.
SAGAL: And you're famous because when people tuned into the video on Sunday to watch the landing, they saw you in charge in the room, wearing this rather remarkable hairdo, the Mohawk.
SAGAL: I mean just like Ed Harris, or rather the real life person, in the Apollo missions had a new vest for every mission, you have a new hairstyle for every mission?
FERDOWSKI: That's exactly right. For all the big events on this project, like launch and everything else, I've had a completely different hairstyle. The last one was voted on by the team, when somebody sent out an internet poll for the whole team to vote on.
SAGAL: Wow. And they voted on a Mohawk. And these are your friends.
SAGAL: Talk to me about your internet fame. Bobak, in particular you have become like, you've become a practical meme. We understand you've been getting a lot of marriage proposals via twitter, which shows real commitment to you as a person.
SAGAL: What is instant internet fame like?
FERDOWSKI: It's so crazy. I can't believe it. I'm still kind of getting over the fact that we just put something on Mars. But, it's a lot of...
SAGAL: No, no, no, tell me about the girls. I want to hear about the groupies.
FERDOWSKI: They're super nice, you know.
SAGAL: So guys, what is the oddest thing that's happened to you since you became internet celebrities?
STELTZNER: The oddest thing?
STELTZNER: Well I got an invitation to be on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!.
SAGAL: You know you've made it. You're the flight director, Bobak. You're the guy in charge of landing, Adam. It flew there and it landed. Aren't you two guys out of a job now?
STELTZNER: Well, Bobak is still going to work the surface mission because they still need, you know, flight directors for that. But I am certified out of a job.
SAGAL: Really? So what are you going to do now?
STELTZNER: I'm going to start looking for work.
SAGAL: Really? So you're going to be like unemployed rocket scientist, genius, landed thing on Mars, can stamp cans?
STELTZNER: Will land on Mars for food.
ROY BLOUNT JR: There you go.
SAGAL: Well, Adam and Bobak, we are delighted to have you here. We have asked you here to play a game that this time we are calling?
KASELL: Try landing on this Mars.
SAGAL: It is actually easier to get a camera onto the surface of Mars than into a Mars candy factory. The company is incredibly secretive. We're going to ask you three questions about Mars, the candy company, and if you get two right, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their home answering machine. Carl, who are Adam and Bobak playing for?
KASELL: Adam and Bobak are playing for Adair Emmons of Portland, Maine.
SAGAL: You guys ready to play?
FERDOWSKI: Ready to play.
SAGAL: All right, and remember: You are rocket scientists. Don't screw this up.
SAGAL: Mars is known for its very modest corporate culture, up to and including the family members who run the company. Which of these rules do the company executives have to follow?
A: For trips of less than 100 miles, they are required to travel by Greyhound Bus? B: Instead of cell phones, each executive is given a roll of quarters for payphones and told to bring back the change? Or C: Each executive, including the CEO of the company, has to punch in and out of work on a time clock?
STELTZNER: We think C.
SAGAL: Did you actually consult or did you just decide for the team there, Adam?
FERDOWSKI: Adam's the team lead, so he always decides.
SAGAL: I understand. Do you do that? You're just like we're hungry now?
SAGAL: We feel like a pizza.
STELTZNER: We don't like what you're saying.
SAGAL: All right then. But the team has collectively decided that the answer is C, the time clock?
STELTZNER: C as in Curiosity.
SAGAL: Yes. Well you guys are right. Yes, it was the time clock. They all have to punch in and out.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Even if you are, as the CEO of Mars is, the grandson of the founder and the owner of the company. All right, the company is famously efficient. For example, the company's legendary boss, Forrest Mars, son of the founder, he used to do what to save money? A: He would scrape chocolate off the faces of kid taste testers to melt down and use again?
SAGAL: B: He would feed the pigs at his private farm with defective M and Ms? Or C: he changed the typeface on M and Ms to sans serif to save money on the ink that he would no longer have to use?
STELTZNER: We think it's C.
SAGAL: You think it's C.
SAGAL: Mission control says C, they changed the typeface to save a little ink without the serifs.
STELTZNER: Yes, confirmed.
Thank you, mission control, you are incorrect.
SAGAL: I'm sorry. Actually, what happened was is he had a private farm with pigs and he was very meticulous about M and Ms. If any of them were defective, had a little type - a type on M and Ms, he would...
SAGAL: ...take them down and use them for pig food. This is very exciting. The company is extremely secretive, Mars is. So much so that what? A: Outsiders who come into the factory to work are blindfolded as they enter and walk across the factory floor? B: Until the law required them to change it, the ingredients on a Mars Bar were listed as "Wouldn't you like to know"?
SAGAL: Or C: If an employee is asked where they work, they're required to say, The CIA?
FERDOWSKI: I'm going to go with A as in Adam.
SAGAL: Babak, you're going for A. Adam, do you agree?
STELTZNER: I'm going to follow the flight director on this one.
SAGAL: You're going to go with A. Correct, a successful landing onto the correct answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: If you are a contractor and you have to work on the floor, they will blindfold you as they bring you to your place so you can't tell the world their secrets. Carl, how did our guests do?
KASELL: They did very well, Peter. Two correct answers, that's good enough to win for Adair Emmons.
SAGAL: Well done guys.
SAGAL: So last weekend you landed a rover on Mars. This weekend, you won on this quiz. What are you going to do next weekend?
FERDOWSKI: I'm going to try to get Carl to record a message on a Mars rover.
SAGAL: There you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
KASELL: I'll be glad to.
FERDOWSKI: I'm going to hold you to that, Carl.
SAGAL: He'll do it. He'll be there for you. Bobak Ferdowsky and Adam Steltzner are two of the men behind the Mars Curiosity mission. Bobak and Adam, thank you so much for being on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!. Congratulations on that insanely cool thing you did.
SAGAL: Thanks so much.
FERDOWSKI: Thank you.
SAGAL: Bye-bye, guys.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.