I’ll admit, this is a sort of odd story, and while it involves a motorized, wheeled vehicle, that vehicle is a scale model of the Mars rover Curiosity, a kind of cartoonish take on the real thing, built by me seven years ago. It was in a YouTube video that’s oddly popular again, and has somehow ended up in the hands of one of the most recognizable planetary scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m telling you this as a reminder that, sometimes, objects have interesting lives.
The story starts back in 2012, when my friend Michele Yu was working on a project for YouTube: those “Rewind” videos that YouTube has been doing every year since 2010. This time, part of the video was to include a segment that paid tribute to the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and for that, they wanted a little model of the rover to drive across the screen.
I guess there were no such models of Curiosity around that you could just buy, so Michele asked me if I would build one. I think I maybe got $200 to do it? I can’t really remember, but I was excited to build it just because it sounded fun, and I’m pro-space exploration and just happy to be involved, even wildly tangentially.
So, I used some kind of six-wheeled RC car as a base and stripped off the body and built a metal rover body on the chassis, using a lot of aerospace salvage parts from a place called Apex Electronics in Sun Valley and a doorstop for the arm and a bunch of other crap I had laying around.
The result was sort of a caricature, but it drove on its own and was recognizable, so I’ll call that a victory. Here it is in the video: it starts at about 1:22, gets a nice closeup at 1:23, and gets blown up, minecraft-style, at about 1:35.
Here, you can just watch it:
Fun, right? I hadn’t seen this video for years, but I found out that after the incredible disaster that was 2018's video (the most disliked video on YouTube, ever) and the lukewarm reaction to 2019's, along with these older Rewind videos being recommended, the number of views of this over-seven-year-old video have climbed to an insane 192 million.
A lot of people have seen my dorky little rover.
Anyway, the reason I’m talking about this at all is because my same friend recently had to shoot another video, and that video featured a segment with the most famous scientist from the Curiosity landing: the One With The Mohawk.
You may not recall, but during the broadcasts from JPL’s control room, one of the scientists working there had a mohawk, and everyone went sort of nuts. The scientist is named Bobak Ferdowsi, and for a while there he was getting an insane amount of attention, and was likely the most famous JPL employee, especially if you don’t count JPL’s amazing Satanist founder, Jack Parsons.
Anyway, while Michele was getting Bobak’s segment set up, she pulled out the old Curiosity model I built, which, incredibly, she’s had sitting in her garage for seven years, and used it to dress up the visuals for the segment:
And, even more incredibly, Bobak liked it and asked to keep it (or perhaps was just offered it?) which she happily agreed to:
So, the upshot here is that I’m thrilled. I can’t believe that this thing I made so long ago and largely forgot about has now ended up in the possession of not just any member of the actual team responsible for building and landing this incredible robot on Mars, but it’s even the one that’s most likely to be remembered by people when I try to explain all this.
Bobak, I hope you like your fake robot there. I’m really honored that you have it, and I can’t think of a better, if remarkably improbable, place for this goofy little project to have ended up.