Reaching for the Stars, Powered by a Dream
In 1998, 14-year-old Kamak Ebadi, who lived in Iran and was fascinated with astronomy and space exploration, dreamed of working at NASA. Ridiculous idea, he was told. Diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were terrible, and getting a U.S. student visa was almost impossible, they said. Even if he got the visa,it was too expensive to study in the U.S. Besides, a job at NASA? Too big a dream, he was told.
No doubt the odds were stacked against him; yet Ebadi was undaunted. He wrote down his plans for every step of the journey in a notebook not of dreams but of plans for the future. Twenty years (and 12 notebooks) later, Ebadi proved his naysayers wrong when he became a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesperson, giving the play-by-play to invited VIP guests during the moment the InSight spacecraft successfully touched down on the surface of Mars.
How did such an unlikely life path come about? “It was a long journey,” Ebadi said, “but I planned for it, stayed focused, worked hard, and kept getting closer and closer to my dream.” The electrical engineering Ph.D. candidate in robotics is now a doctoral research fellow at JPL who develops localization, navigation, and mapping solutions for a future collaborative Mars helicopter and rover mission—another unlikely feat and one that has never been achieved. Not yet, that is.
Ebadi is big on planning. “At age 17, I started working at an internet service provider in Iran. For nine years I provided network engineering technical support on the night shift from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. for different ISP and telecommunication companies,” he said. During that time, he saved his money, earned his bachelor’s degree in software engineering, and eventually applied for and was accepted into a master’s program in computer engineering at Florida International University.
Through it all, his dream of working for NASA burned on. As a teenager, Ebadi followed all space-related news and was particularly interested in the work of Dr. Firouz Naderi, an Iranian-American scientist. Upon arriving in the U.S. and starting his master’s program, Ebadi contacted Naderi, then the director for Solar Systems Exploration at NASA’s JPL, to request mentoring. “I sent him 17 emails to be precise, until he finally agreed to meet with me,” Ebadi said with a laugh. When Naderi suggested the young hopeful move closer to JPL for his Ph.D. program, Ebadi started applying to University of California schools. A conversation with Gabriel Elkaim, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Santa Cruz, led him to Santa Clara University.
“Dr. Elkaim told me, ‘If your dream is to work at JPL, you’d better apply to a school that has a good relationship with them,” Ebadi said. “Talk to Dr. Chris Kitts at Santa Clara University. He’s got a good program with NASA/Ames, and that will get you closer to your dream.’”
For more than a decade, mechanical engineering Professor Christopher Kitts has directed SCU’s Robotics Systems Laboratory (RSL) and Mission Control Center, through which SCU students operate numerous NASA small satellite programs. Santa Clara is the only university running mission ops for NASA. “I came to SCU and it was fantastic to see the RSL and satellite operations. Dr. Kitts was encouraging and motivating, and I felt really close to my dream,” Ebadi said. He applied to the electrical engineering Ph.D. program, which best suited his background, and is advised by Dr. Sally Wood, and co-advised by Kitts.
On his very first day at SCU, at the graduate students’ orientation, a different sort of dream instantly began to take shape. Sitting directly across the table from Ebadi was Aram Hamidi ’15, a new master’s student in the electrical engineering robotics program. The two immediately hit it off and began dating that day. “At Aram’s graduation, I told her we had been dating for exactly 1,000 days. I said I’d like to start day 1,001 with a new mission, and I got down on one knee and proposed.” Happily, she said yes. The two have been married since 2016, and Hamidi has an exciting career as a self-driving car engineer at Cruise Automation, a company that builds autonomous cars for General Motors.
Ebadi continued to rely on the advice and support of his mentor, Dr. Naderi. “When I finally got an interview at JPL,” Ebadi said, “they asked me to explain one of my biggest accomplishments in life. I said, ‘The fact that I’m sitting here talking to you at this moment is one of my biggest accomplishments. For 18 years I’ve been working toward this job interview. Many things had to come together just right, but I never let the dream go and worked for it.’ I think they liked that answer,” he said, laughing again.
JPL offered Ebadi a doctoral research fellowship. “There are so many paths you can follow there, and they are very open and welcoming to have you as part of a project,” he said. Ebadi is now involved in multiple research projects, including the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, which develops technologies to map subterranean environments with a fleet of autonomous mobile robots and the collaborative Mars helicopter-rover localization and mapping. “It’s the first time in history that NASA will send a helicopter to Mars. With no GPS on Mars to help localize a vehicle, the helicopter needs to be able to [orient itself] in response to the environment and navigate safely from point A to point B.” Also, Ebadi points out, because Mars is so far away, even at the speed of light it takes quite a long time to send or receive a signal, so live communication with the helicopter is impossible. “It needs to be able to fly and navigate on its own, capture images, map the terrain, and safely land—all autonomously,” he said.
Ebadi’s current notebook plans list defending his thesis and completing his Ph.D. this summer. And then? “Hopefully a full-time position at NASA’s JPL,” he said.
“My experience since joining SCU has been so rewarding. I’m getting my dream job, I met my wife…. I’ve always had the feeling in my heart that no dream is ever too big. Everyone should stick to their dream and follow it—no matter how big or how many people say it is impossible. If I had let my dream go, none of this would have happened. Always reach for the stars and do your best to make it happen!”
Jan 22, 2019
Kamak Ebadi in JPL's Charles Elachi Mission Control Center, aka The Center of the Universe