Home  /  Interviews  /  Firouz Naderi

### Consultant, Coach, Strategist for Early-stage Startups and Public Speaker

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

April 25 and May 23, 2022

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Monday, April 25, 2022. I'm delighted to be here with Dr. Firouz Naderi. Firouz, it's great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.

FIROUZ NADERI: Good to be here, thank you.

ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?

NADERI: I don't have a title, after 36 years at JPL I'm now retired. I consult with a number of startup companies. I think it's now six years. February 2016 is when I retired from JPL. I've worked with a number of startup companies. I'm working with four specific ones right now, none in space-related activities, but technical, nonetheless. Many of the startups I've worked with, as a sign of the day, are AI-related, which is not my background. But the reason I can work with startups without missing a beat is that at JPL, we normally divide a project into three phases, formulation, implementation, and operations. In formulation, we use money from NASA or internal JPL investment funds to develop an idea to the point it shows promise for one day becoming a major multi-million- or multi-billion-dollar mission. Then, we propose it to NASA and get the funding to go into execution. Most of my years at JPL, I was interested in formulation phase, even though later on, I was overseeing a directorate which did implementation & operations as well. But the whole idea of starting with a blank sheet of paper without any constraints other than what you levy on yourself…

ZIERLER: You enjoyed that.

NADERI: I enjoyed that. You always know who you can hire or recruit to work in formulation because the people who are used to implementation come in and say, "Where's the requirement?" There is no requirement. You develop the ideas, then put the constraints around it. And you have to go argue to get the seed funds to be able to do these kinds of things. That's exactly what a startup does. They come up with an idea, whether they do it in their grandparents' garage or with $10,000 from their uncle, they get started and get the idea to the point where they can pitch it to an investor, and based on that, get the funding to go to the next steps. I figured I had the right training, background, and disposition for that based on what I did in my work in formulation phase at JPL. ZIERLER: At JPL, so much of the formulation is connected to the science objectives. How does that translate, or does it not, in the formulation stage of startups that might not have a science objective at the heart of what they're trying to accomplish? NADERI: With formulation at JPL, the science dictates what you need to do. In a startup, it's the founder who has an idea to do something. That sort of substitutes for the science. ZIERLER: His or her vision, just like the scientific vision. NADERI: Exactly. They come and either say, "This thing we want to do doesn't exist right now," or, "It exists, but the competition isn't doing it very well, and my vision is to do disrupt the existing market." Given my formulation background, I thought it was pretty much the same thing. Except that at JPL, of course, mostly, we're space-related, doing things that would ultimately end up in space missions. The good thing about my consulting is the variety. I am not tied to any one field. For example, one of my four startups I work with right now, we're trying to build an AI driven humanoid that, if we can get the price down to about$15,000, you can get a very humanlike robot to have as a companion, for example.

ZIERLER: For the elderly, for example.

NADERI: Yes. We were also thinking about healthcare assistant in hospitals also. But in hospitals, it doesn't have to have a human form factor. It could be a cart.

ZIERLER: Delivers medicine.

NADERI: Right. It doesn't have to look like a human. But that form factor evokes certain sentiments, which would help in certain scenarios. We are near the point where we'll have a functioning robot. And then, one element I didn't have to worry about at JPL is branding. How do you brand this product and the company to get funding to go to mass market, for example? What we're thinking right now is that we're going to make a stand-up comic out of the humanoid and try to serve as his or her–we're gender neutral right now–agent and try to book him or her as an opening act for John Legend in Las Vegas for example or book him or her into an improve. Then build a digital marketing campaign around this personality we've created. Based on that, when the company is established and recognized, you could say, "We're also going to do mass market and introduce this thing for home companions, greeters, or what have you." These are the branding we didn't have to worry about at JPL. That's one of the jobs I'm doing right now.

ZIERLER: I wonder, going back to your childhood, if you always had an entrepreneurial streak, and you're really expressing that now in life outside of JPL.

NADERI: More than that, from the get-go, I was a planer and an organizer. If a family member wanted to get married, for example, they would come to me. "Can you organize and do the planning for us?" They would do the leg work I would do the thinking and planning.

ZIERLER: You would put it all together.

NADERI: Yeah. Thinking through the details and connecting the pieces is what I like to do.

ZIERLER: When you retired, did you have this vision already that you would go into startups and consulting, or that developed later on?

NADERI: No, but I knew I couldn't retire cold after the types of projects we did at JPL, which are exciting and stressful. I just couldn't, the next day, get up, have a cup of coffee, and not have anything to do. For a while, I did strategic planning for JPL. It was very clear to me that the type of work I had mostly done at JPL in mission formulation and strategy would be applicable to very early-stage startups, where they try to solidify around an idea and form a strategy.

I'm very curious. If somebody would say, "You've been semi-successful or successful to what do you attribute that?" I would definitely say, curiosity. That leads to a desire to learn. And I love the process of learning. That's where I'm most happy, most engaged. While I'm not sure I did it as a plan, it so happens that my career at JPL coalesced around five-year clumps. As soon as I would get very comfortable in what I was doing, I would switch to another area. At JPL this was possible because even though JPL is a space organization, within it, there's quite a bit of diversity of work you can do.

When I would switch from one area to another, I would throw myself at the new job because I needed to learn to be competitive with the people who were already old-timers in that field. The first couple of years, it was an intense learning process. And that's when I enjoyed my job the most because I was learning, and the act of learning is something I enjoy. And the competitiveness. You are now at a disadvantage relative to the people who are established in the area you've just entered. Curiosity, competitiveness, learning, these are the sort of things that sustained me at JPL. From when I entered JPL, in 35 years, I think I probably can count seven distinct positions I jumped around to. And then, what happens in an organization like JPL, sooner or later, when they're looking for a senior executive, they look to find out if there are any people who have touched many facets of JPL, so if they're put in a senior position, they'll know many of the domains they're overseeing. If you move around enough–not every couple of months, five years is a good amount of time to sink your teeth into an area–eventually, when they were looking for senior management, my name would come up. That's sort of the short story of my days at JPL.

ZIERLER: Did you build up your rolodex and contacts in startup culture during your time at JPL? Or you were cold, and the first day, you built it from scratch?

NADERI: Cold. I'll give you an example. One of my more financially lucrative startups, I got a call from this small company from Silicon Valley, and they were contacted by a multi-billion-dollar company in Japan that builds tractors for vineyards, for pruning and tilling. This is a multi-billion-dollar company in Japan that went to their internal engineering department and said, "All our competitors are going from gasoline to electric batteries, and they're going driverless." Of course, driverless in vineyard is not like driving in downtown San Francisco. It's not Tesla.

ZIERLER: Not too many surprises.

NADERI: Not too many surprises, unless there's a cat running in front of tractor. So, they asked their internal team "How long might it take you to convert our current product line to this?" Like most multi-billion-dollar companies that have been around, they have regulations on top of regulations, and they said, "Five years." "Five years? The competitors would be way ahead of us." So, they went to the Bay Area, they hooked up with this company, and this company said, "We can do it in a year and a half." Once they committed themselves, unlike most startups starved for money, their billion-dollar client had deep pockets, but time was at a premium. They started looking for individuals that have executed under tight schedule constraints. At JPL in our planetary programs, five years ahead of time, let's say in terms of Mars, you know you have a 21-day window in which you have to launch the spacecraft, or hundreds of millions of dollars are lost. Schedule management becomes an art that you perfect. And I think they came across my LinkedIn writeup. They reached out to me, and they said, "Would you be interested?"

By this time, I had been through multiple startups. With early stage startups, it's almost like buying lottery tickets. One of them hits, nine of them don't. As compensation, you usually sign up for equity. They say, "We don't have any money to pay you, but we'll give you X percentage in equity." Now, if you work, and they don't make it, you've worked for nothing because the company goes under and your equity is worth nothing. So, when these guys came along, and by this time I'd had a few experiences, they asked "how much equity are you interested in?" I said, "I'm not interested in equity. It's a straight consulting rate." They asked, "What's your consulting rate?" I gave them a number. They said yes so quickly, I could've doubled the amount, and it still would've worked. Then, they said, "How much equity do you want?" I said, "No equity. I don't need equity."

They said, "We want you to have some equity." I said, "Okay, whatever." Then the contract came and I saw they'd agreed to my consulting rate, and they said, "You have 36,000 shares," which I didn't know what percentage it was, or what it meant. I didn't care, I just put the contract away. A few months go by, we do really well, client is very much impressed with the progress we've made. The CEO of the company called me and said, "It's unbelievable, our client might want to buy us." I said, "Good for you. Fantastic. Did they mention any price?" He said, "If they agree, it may be a billion dollars." He said, "Billion," and before he could finish the rest of it, I'm thinking, "They gave me 36,000 shares. Is it half a percent, a quarter of a percent?". These are some of the fun factors when you're working in private sector and startups with the ups and downs. Then, with some startups, you put in all of the hours, and at the end, they just can't make it. They don't attract any investment. All of these guys come to me at the ground floor seeking a strategic pathway of how they can get there. That's what's very appealing.

ZIERLER: But to get back to the question, how did people start to know you? How did you establish a reputation before you were in this field?

NADERI: In this particular case, they looked me up on my LinkedIn profile. In it, I say that we managed complex programs & projects at JPL. And I used to teach a module at Stanford on managing complex projects, which is also on my LinkedIn. But probably for them, the fact that we had to commit to a 21-day window five years ahead of time…

ZIERLER: That's precision.

NADERI: Precision, and the experience of delivering on a tight schedule.

ZIERLER: From that one call, you build a network. You're in that world at that point.

NADERI: This was after several startups I had worked with. Another factor relates to my birth country. I was born in Iran. I was 18 years old when I came here to go to school. If you have read a bit of my bio, in 1999 and 2000, NASA had a couple of pretty embarrassing failures, Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter. NASA formed a blue-ribbon committee to find the causes that led to these failure. They found a general technical flaw in approach, and they found flaws in communication channel between JPL and NASA Headquarters. These were the two major findings. They said, "Technically, you need to fix all of this. And organizationally, we're going to put one person in NASA headquarters and one person at JPL, and the only formal communications are between these two single points of contact. You have this one summer to completely revamp the Mars program and say what you want to do."

ZIERLER: You were the point of contact for JPL.

NADERI: Yes. I became the program manager for Mars. Then, to make a long story short, in the summer of 2000 we re-planned a couple of decades' worth of what NASA should do.

ZIERLER: As a result of what happened in '99 and this new strategy.

NADERI: Yes. And even up until lately, we have pretty much marched to that plan. We've had eight consecutive successful trips to Mars.

ZIERLER: It's been a good run.

NADERI: It's been a very good run. But of course, the most stressful was in January 2004, when we landed Spirit and Opportunity on Mars. It was a very high-visibility activity. I was in the news, they talked about the Mars program manager, I had interviews, and my name sort of got around and back to the home country. As you've heard in the news, Iran has gone and is still going through a very rough time with a theocratic government, and the young people there don't have many opportunities, and they're looking for anything to hang onto to motivate them. They saw my name, and to them, of course, NASA is something you can't even imagine. NASA is this magical place where wondrous things happen. Only gifted people work there.

ZIERLER: And it's not political. It's not a sore point between Iran and the US.

NADERI: Correct. All of a sudden, they saw somebody who was born there who now has been part of the Mars program and is leading it. Among the young people in Iran, I became somebody to look up to. I was the Michael Jordan and Cristiano Ronaldo of the space business. I very often now run across young Iranians here who are in their 30s who say, "I was sitting on the couch with my parents the day you guys were landing, and I saw you on television, and I knew I wanted to go into aerospace, do technical things." Then, I meet them here. I have become a rather well-known personality for the Iranian youth. And today, when people ask me, "Of the things you have done, what are some you're really proud of?" This is it. Impacting young minds – to the extent that I have done that particularly back in my birth country.

ZIERLER: And there are many in Los Angeles.

NADERI: There are many in Los Angeles now, and if you do your research about the Iranian diaspora here, in the past 40 years, when the Revolution happened in Iran, there was a brain drain that started from Iran to here, and it's continuing. The brightest come out, and they invariably end up at the MITs and the Stanfords. The Iranian diaspora has been enormously successful in Silicon Valley. As an Iranian-American community took shape here, there are so many tech founders who are Iranian or have Iranian heritage. Some of the startups, I didn't have to do networking. Many of these people, Iranian entrepreneurs, Iranian-Americans, quite a few have been born in the US since it's been 40 years since the Revolution, they look me up. They know I used to work at JPL and I am retired. They seek me out. I haven't actively gone out and looked for anyone. Some of the Iranian founders who look me up are just brilliant. The tractor startup, I had no prior connections with. They just found me through LinkedIn. But several others were Iranian-Americans founders who sought me out.

ZIERLER: How locally based are you? Of course, you're here in Los Angeles, but in terms of your clients, nationwide, international, also local? How far out does it go for you?

NADERI: Mostly, California, southern and northern. Frankly, I'm not expanding, I don't want to expand, I don't want to work more. If I add up all my startups together, I don't want it to be more than half my time. Often, when people ask me, "How are you doing after JPL?" I tell them, "I'm failing at retirement." The idea was not to quit JPL then go work full-time again. Half-time, probably about three or four startups. That's about the size I want to keep it. And of course, the past two years, there was the pandemic, and you couldn't travel anyway. I have two other interests. One is mentoring about a dozen and a half young people in their early 20s to mid-30s, male, female, either at school or their business. Also, something I enjoy is lecturing. I enjoy interacting with the younger people.

ZIERLER: What kinds of industries are these people interested in or already in?

NADERI: They mostly come to me when they're in the middle of their education, graduating, or going into graduate school, getting their PhDs or what have you. Then, of course, some stay with me as they go get a job. As an example, I got a call from one of these guys who graduated and was looking for a job for a few months. He called and said, "I got a job with a tremendous offer, salary and all that." I said, "Fantastic, I'm so happy for you. What did your parents say?" He said, "I haven't told them yet. You were the first person I thought to call. I haven't called them yet." It becomes that kind of relationship. I was married, divorced, and my wife and I got married when we were in our early 40s, and neither one of us wanted to have kids. But all of a sudden, now I feel like I have about a dozen kids around the country, and we have that kind of relationship. Another one proposed to his girlfriend, and again, he called me and I said, "My God, your parents have to be very happy." And he said, "I haven't called them yet." It's that kind of relationship. That's another aspect, which I actually put a lot of time into. And it started with JPL. A good number of people at JPL found me maybe a good sounding board, or I mentored them. It's been six years since I left JPL, and still, people from JPL call me. "This job is open. Should I? Shouldn't I? What are the pros and cons?" That kind of a mentorship very much appeals to me as much as any other technical work I do. The other one is that I just love teaching. Not necessarily in a classroom setting, but when I was at JPL, I started lecturing at different student associations and universities around the country, outside the US also, where I take what we do at JPL and simplify it without dumbing it down. I just love telling general public what we do in a language they can easily relate to, regardless of their background.

One of my favorite stories is that I was giving an after-hours lecture at Berkeley, a public discussion. After I finished talking, an elderly woman, maybe in her 80s, came and said, "Young man, my grandson is 12 years old, that shy boy standing in the corner. He wanted to come to this lecture, and his parents were invited for dinner. He bugged me and bugged me. I said, "I don't want to go listen to this NASA guy talk about things that are going to go over my head and I won't understand." But he insisted. I finally relented. I thought I'd sit in the back row and sleep, then when you were done, I'd take my grandson home. But, I want to tell you two things. First of all, I didn't fall asleep and I understood everything you said." I said, "I'm delighted. That's so nice to hear." Then, she paid me the real compliment. She said, "By the way, the type of thing you guys do is not all that complicated." When she said that, I knew I'd reached the grandson and grandmother, both.

I've bundled mentoring, teaching, public outreach, lecturing, startups, and I still consult at JPL, particularly when they're looking for a strategy for mission formulation. And I package it all together for a post JPL life.

ZIERLER: Keeps you busy.

NADERI: As busy as I want to be.

ZIERLER: With the mentoring, how do students know to get in contact with you? Referrals? How do they connect?

NADERI: I have a good social media presence, but I don't post my half-eaten plate of spaghetti. I normally talk about something serious, to try to simplify a technical subject, to talk about something that happened at SpaceX, NASA, JPL, and I try to simplify it. People get a hold of me that way. As I said, those who are Iranian-Americans know me. It's embarrassing, but they say, "You're a legend. You're a hero. You're a role model. You're why I studied this and that." They know of me. It doesn't all have to do with the fact that I worked at JPL for 36 years, it also happens that I am from a country, which is now depressed and suppressed. But because of the internet, the young people have access to what's going on outside. And they have nothing to cheer. There's nothing to uplift them, so they're delighted to follow people who have succeeded and may have come from their hometown. They see that, and they see possibility. "What's so special about him? He made it, why can't I?" I feel really bad for the youth in Iran and what they're subjected to.

ZIERLER: Your consulting work at JPL, what kinds of things do they reach out to you for?

NADERI: Normally, it is about what technology they should get into. Now, I have a view from the outside. For a while, I was thinking that JPL was not as aggressively pursuing artificial intelligence, and the way it's done at JPL, it's pretty scattered. A lot of it is strategy, a lot of it is reviewing proposals to NASA. One of the things you do for startup companies is work on their pitch decks. This is what they take to the investor to say, "This is my idea, this is how I can make money, this is how I differentiate myself from the competitors," and all that. The pitch deck is a dozen and half slides heavily handcrafted, and it's like the proposals we do at JPL, where we have to say, "Why us and not Goddard? Why us and not Ames?" We are telling the story. The other thing, which maybe I did okay with when I was at JPL, is that every time we had a high-visibility presentation to a Congressman or Senator who would be in charge of the budget who was coming to JPL–JPL people, being so brilliant and talented, they go in front of these guys, and they want to explain something, and they say, "Let me go to the white board and write the equation for you." That doesn't work. You lose them. Because I like to give talks and simplify without dumbing down the topic I did that job well. The question is, how do you tell the story in a way that's accessible? How you write proposals, how you convey the message? That again, is something that helped me when I got to startups -- how to help them write their pitch deck because we were writing proposals to NASA to get selected. That storytelling, convincing them in a limited proposal, not with 18 slides, but nonetheless, you don't write a Tolstoy novel. It needs to be brief. How do you structure it so that you read the headline, and you already have some idea, then you read the first column of a newspaper, and you get a little bit more. And then, if you're really addicted to the story, you read the rest of it. That style of writing and presentation has also helped me and it is the training we got at JPL.

I normally describe people as "T" people or "I" people. We have a lot of brilliant I people. They're narrow but very deep in a particular discipline –- some of the world's best in that discipline. But by necessity, they're just that deep not wide. Then, the T people have a shorter stem but a wide horizontal bar that covers a part of the adjacent fields. Then, you can connect the dots. And if you're curious, like I was, you sort of naturally gravitate toward a T-type personality, which is not easy because when you get out of university with a PhD, you're of the mindset that, "I'm going to drill down. I just got a PhD in this field, and I'm going to go another 20 years further."

Very early on, because of my curiosity, I always wanted to find out where the fields to my left and right were doing. I would go, seek, and learn. And without really being cognizant of it, 15 years have gone by, and the bar on the top of your T has broadened. You may not be an expert anymore in what you got your PhD in, but you've gotten into so many other things, which allows you to connect the dots among many things. That shaped my personality. This is what I love to do. I loved being a system engineer, then I went to be project manager, and then a program manager. When you go to Mars, you have about 17 or 18 different disciplines, each one of which has people with a PhD. You have a lot of people who are I-types and very, very deep. It wasn't necessary, if you were managing or overseeing that program, to know all these fields, but you needed to know enough to communicate with them – sort of to have a bullshit filter. This multifaceted personality at the expense of being expert has shaped me. And today, I enjoy that. Let's say I'm reading an article, and thank God these days for the internet and Wikipedia. I'm in the middle of reading an article, then I think, "I'm not sure what they're saying here." I find myself researching the topic that was in the first paragraph. Then, before I know it, I'm several subjects away from the article I was reading. Then, I trace my way back.

ZIERLER: In a few weeks, we're going to welcome Laurie Leshin as the director of JPL. Do you know Laurie? Have you worked with her at all?

NADERI: I was Mars Program manager, and NASA had and has the Discovery Program, which is competitive among NASA centers. Laurie, who was then a professor at Arizona State University, wanted to do the first sample return from Mars, but not from the surface. She had this idea of a spacecraft orbiting Mars that would lower itself into the orbit and skim the top of the atmosphere. It would have a collecting device that would capture some of the upper Martian atmosphere and bring that to Earth without actually landing. She was the PI for that.

ZIERLER: You capture air? Particle matter?

NADERI: Both. The air is the particle matter, what's floating there. Even though it's the upper atmosphere. The fear, of course, was, if you would have gone too far down, the gravity would've pulled it in. It was sort of a nice dance to hit the top of the atmosphere and skim it. She didn't win that, but I knew her from that time some 15 years ago.

ZIERLER: What are some of the challenges you think she'll be faced with, given your strategic perspective of JPL and where it might be headed? What's most important right now for JPL?

NADERI: A topic I mentioned before, brain drain. I talked to you about brain drain in Iran.

ZIERLER: Now, it's SpaceX and Blue Origin.

NADERI: Yes, and others, like Apple, Google, etc. We were doing such special things. And still, it's us who does the helicopter on Mars, these audacious things. We were the first people who sent the first CubeSats to Mars. It's how to keep the best at JPL and attract more. This is, by far, the biggest issue.

ZIERLER: Obviously, you can't compete on salary, so how do you compete? What does JPL offer?

NADERI: First of all, I think the classic thing with JPL people is, sometimes when they say, "Who do you work for?" We say NASA because NASA has a big cachet. When it comes to salary, they say, "Who do you work for?" We say, "Caltech." [Laugh] because we're not bound to the civil servant salaries, and we can do better than other NASA centers, but maybe not quite as well as the private sector. There's a scarcity of talent. Some of the salaries they're offering outside are crazy, but I think we need to retain our superstars at JPL, and meet the salaries, and hope that we're not a bureaucratic organization, we're a fun organization which does amazing things. There is some work-life balance at JPL people won't find at SpaceX. Gwynne Shotwell is the president of SpaceX, and there was a "Woman in Tech" gathering, where Gwynne was a keynote speaker. One woman from JPL said, "What is your view on work-life balance?" and I'm paraphrasing, Gwynne said, " To stay ahead, you stay until the job is done." JPL is much more family-oriented. You have to give them a basket of goodies. It's not all salary. It's the excitement of flying a helicopter on Mars, the sense that you are a valued member of the JPL family. Yes, within three months of launch, it's crazy at JPL. But that kind of pressure is not continuous on you at JPL. And you don't get civil servant salary. It's a package of things, the way you treat people, the sense of family you feel within JPL. And if you do all of that, you're still in the top five with the Amazons, Googles, and Facebooks. And we've lost some people I consider superstars. We've lost them to Facebook, Google, Blue Origin, SpaceX. It's tough. That's the first challenge. Then, there's the mood of the Lab. [Charles] Elachi was director for 15 years. Those 15 years while Elachi was director of JPL, I was a member of the Executive Council, which is the highest management group. Elachi is very gregarious, slap the back, walk the hallways, go talk to people. And some of us who worked directly under him would sometimes go crazy because he would go around us and talk to everybody and give directions to our direct report. When he left, there was a cultural shock with the next director.

ZIERLER: Very different style.

NADERI: He created a very sharp administrative pyramid and tried to manage through three people. He came in in the morning, and locked the door whereas Elachi was hardly ever alone in his office. The executive council was not as engaged anymore. A lot of people were demoralized. Because you went from a sense of having access to the boss all the time, any time. And this is not necessarily good, Elachi did it to exaggeration, but you could jump six levels and go see the head of the organization if you really insisted.

ZIERLER: JPL needs that flatness in its organization. It needs access, to some degree, to the top.

NADERI: Yes. Laurie has a very bubbly personality, maybe even a little bit too right or left of Elachi in terms of outgoingness and all that. But, most importantly, if you ask Elachi, "Give me one of the more important reasons you succeeded," he would tell you, "The next level of management I put in place." He would be gone a lot on travel, so he really relied on the Executive Council, and he hand-picked people. I was at JPL 36 years. Forty percent of my long career at JPL, I was on the Executive Council in different positions. With Laurie, it remains to be seen. If you want to know whether Laurie will be successful or not, you'll know it within the first five or six months from her appointments and how she empowers (again) the Executive Council.

ZIERLER: That's what you'll be looking for, who she appoints.

NADERI: That's what I'll be looking for.

ZIERLER: Each director picks who they want for their Executive Council?

NADERI: It as it should be. If, in fact, the incoming director is very passive in that respect–because at the end, you have to have your own people. It cannot be Elachi's people or Mike's people, it needs to be Laurie's people. Yes, it's going to take a little bit of time to survey the field and know the people, but I would know whether she's going to be successful based on the people she appointments. If she comes in, and that's not her priority, and it's, "I'm the outside person. I represent JPL to the outside, to NASA, to the National Academy"…

ZIERLER: Kind of like a president of a university and a provost. The president is focused outside, the provost is focused inside, to some degree.

NADERI: Yeah. And Elachi was president/provost. And you need that at JPL.

ZIERLER: You need to be both.

NADERI: You need to be both. And it takes a special personality to do that, and Elachi had it. The man never slept. His most famous trip is that he flew from Pasadena to Amsterdam. From the airport, he went to the lecture hall and gave the talk, then got on a plane and came back. He was there for the duration of the talk between overseas flights. It wears down most people. But that's who Elachi was.

ZIERLER: We've touched on brain drain and personality type for the director. What about the missions, the science? What do you think is most important as JPL looks past Mars Sample Return, past 2028?

NADERI: The holy grail for JPL, at least in planetary science, is determining evidence of life outside of Earth.

ZIERLER: Are you not ready to give up on Mars?

ZIERLER: You mean current and past life?

NADERI: Within our tiny, tiny, tiny solar system of the Sun and eight planets, was life a miracle on Earth only? Is the process that led to you and I being in this room right now so exceptionally rare that it is unlikely to have happened anywhere else?

ZIERLER: In our solar system or elsewhere?

NADERI: Anywhere. If you take a look at what led to the formation of the sun and Earth, we already know that's common. It happens on a daily basis in our galaxy and the universe. The next thing is, Earth formed, oceans formed. How did life happen? Before that, you're talking about chemistry, elements, atoms, molecules, and all that. All of a sudden, three and a half billion years ago, you're talking about RNA, DNA, cells, and biology. How did we go from a chemical universe to a biological universe? And was it a miracle that life happened here? If we find out in our solar system, where our sun is one of 400 billion stars in the Milky Way…

ZIERLER: Which is just one galaxy.

NADERI: One galaxy, and then there are 100 or 200 billions of those. If right next to us, there's another planet where this jump from…

ZIERLER: Then, it opens up the whole universe.

NADERI: One can say, "Life on Earth was transported from Mars. It must have been that some meteorite from Mars landed on Earth and seeded the life on Earth." But if you can find life in the ocean of Europa, the moon of Jupiter, where there's no possibility of life exchange with Earth, or Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, that changes things. That's a second genesis of life. One of the ways I try to make people understand large numbers, where your mind goes numb, is, if you go through all the beaches in the world and count each grain of sand, there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on Earth. If you go to the beach and pick up one grain of sand, and you say, "This is our solar system," and you can show that it was not a miracle that on this little grain of sand, life evolved, then the universe must be teeming with life. It completely changes the equation about your presence and the context for you being here.

Yes, Elon [Musk] might be interested in landing on Mars, and I think the man is brilliant, but I think there are still domains where JPL is the unquestioned leader in the world. Elon is not going to go to the oceans of Europa or Enceladus. These are the things JPL ought to pursue. The next thing we ought to pursue is not a helicopter which is a proof of concept, but truly a companion to rovers. Most of the evidence for past life may be buried. You're not going to take a shovel on Mars and dig. The best way to see the strata in the layers of Mars is to go to the craters. Because when something impacted Mars and dug it up, the layers are exposed right now in the walls of the craters. Well, the rover can't go there, but the helicopter can fly, and look up at the layers, and have spectrometers, cameras, and other sensors to look for evidence. These are things we uniquely can do.

ZIERLER: And you're talking about in our solar system, where JPL can make these discoveries. What about exoplanets? Where does JPL factor in there?

NADERI: Before I became Mars program manager, I was the program manager for a program called Origins. And maybe it was on the strength of that that I became the Mars program manager. In the mid-90s, we had the first positive proof that there are planets around other stars. Before that, it was a heuristic, statistical argument.

ZIERLER: Meaning that there are many stars, so there have to be planets.

NADERI: Yes. But never directly or indirectly did we see evidence of a planet. That's when it started. Of course, we now know of several thousand planets.

ZIERLER: We're over 5,000 now, I think.

NADERI: A bit less but yes. I was the program manager of Origins, and the exoplanet was JPL's domain. Something unfortunate that's happened is, because of the political clout of Mikulski, before she retired, we have lost a fair bit of that to Goddard, which has become sort of the de facto astrophysics center for NASA. And of course, James Webb, with $10 billion, sucked up all the money. There was no money to do anything else in astrophysics. ZIERLER: Were you part of the mission where Elachi went to Washington to protest this move to Goddard in 2004 or so? NADERI: Originally, it was actually Ed Stone when we were talking about this. And I'm a brawler compared to Ed Stone. ZIERLER: He's a gentleman. NADERI: Very much a gentleman. Al Diaz, I think, must've been the AA at the time. When he hinted that they were taking a few things away from JPL, including LISA the space mission aimed at the gravitational wave detection and give it to Goddard. This when LIGO and all the papers on the subject were out of Caltech and JPL. I got so worked up that I remember Ed had to tap me on my hand telling me to cool down. Then, of course, after that, Elachi–but we lost ground to Goddard in astrophysics. I hope we can turn it around a bit and still be a player, but right now, I think they're the lead center for astrophysics. Whereas space missions to detect exoplanets, which was the plum job in astrophysics, started at JPL. ZIERLER: Where are you most optimistic within our own solar system that JPL may be able to find life? Where do you think it'll happen, if anywhere? NADERI: I'm not a scientist, but again, given my curiosity, wanting to learn about different things, talking to the scientists at JPL, it has to be Enceladus or Europa. There's still some debate about which is more likely. I think the Europa ocean is much older and bigger, but Enceladus is much easier to get to. Unfortunately, in the decadal report that just came out, they downgraded the Europa lander based on cost. We have a Europa orbiter called Clipper, which is going to launch in about 2 years. Then, after that, we were planning a Europa lander, which would scoop the ice from the surface and feed it into a number of instruments to analyze it. And ultimately, and this is now a little bit thinking in terms of sci-fi, we were going to get a nuclear warhead to melt the ice to get to the ocean below and use a submarine to explore the ocean. ZIERLER: And it's all frozen? There's no unfrozen part of the ocean? NADERI: Well the ocean is not frozen, the shell around it is. Then, there's a debate as to how thick the ice shell is. It goes anywhere from five kilometers of slosh to 30 kilometers of hard ice. The idea of an orbiter first and a lander next was to better understand and pinpoint where we could go down. I was disappointed that wasn't part of the decadal that came out. They went with Enceladus, which is jetting plumes out. We don't have to go down, we can fly through the plumes and sample what's coming up from the surface. Decadal report has planned an orbiter-lander for Enceladus. Clearly, JPL would have to nail that mission. In the next decade, we have to win the Enceladus Orbiter-Lander mission. ZIERLER: With all you know about Mars, going that far out, that cold, what are some of the big engineering challenges that makes this totally different? NADERI: If you're talking about Europa, the biggest challenge is that Europa sits in the magnetic field of Jupiter, where a lot of particles get trapped. Imagine this room full of mosquitoes flying by the tens of thousands, and as you're sitting here, they're impinging on your face all the time. These particles trapped in the magnetic field of Jupiter are traveling at high speed, and when they hit the spacecraft, they fry the electronics unless they are hardened and well shielded. One of the most important things is how to make our electronics radiation-hard to survive this environment. That's the difficulty for Europa. Enceladus, of course, is even much further away. Jupiter is 5 AU away, and Saturn is 10 AU away, long time just to get there. If the SLS, the mega launch vehicle that NASA is building, or Elon Musk's Starship happens, a trip from here to Europa may be a year and a half. If not, the next level down would be a launcher that would take six years just to get there. This then gets outside the interest horizon of some people. ZIERLER: What about Venus? Have you followed what's happening with that? NADERI: We finally have a mission, Veritas, that's going to go there. It's a very capable orbiter. Surprisingly, NASA selected two missions, a Goddard mission and a JPL mission to explore Venus. The Goddard mission is a 45-minute mission. They're going to send a balloon through the atmosphere to sample it, and by the time it gets to the surface, it's fried. It's probing the atmosphere for the 45-minute mission. We're building an orbiter with a very strong radar and we can map Venus at exquisite resolution. Both of them were selected, and both will launch middle to the second half of the decade. This is the decade of Venus. ZIERLER: Obviously, you're still very closely integrated with JPL and attuned to what's happening there. NADERI: We proposed many of these things when I was there. Planetary and astrophysics projects/programs were my playground. The other thing, which I'm not as well-versed in is the earth science. JPL is magnificent at earth science, with all the things going on with climate change. The thing with Earth's climate is, it's not something where you launch, you go find something, and that's the discovery answers many questions. For Earth's climate, it's time series over a decade or two decades. You send something that monitors an indicator for seven or eight years, and immediately, when that dies, the next one goes up. You need to build up 20, 30 years of data to analyze the trends. JPL, for the past 20, 30 years, and on into the future, has really established itself in the Earth sciences. That's another place where JPL can shine. But it doesn't have the glitz of the helicopter on Mars or the submarine in Europa. ZIERLER: But we sure need it. We need the data. NADERI: Oh, yes. We also need spinach, but we go for the dessert. [Laugh] ZIERLER: Last topic I want to touch on today that will serve as context for our subsequent conversations, between your education and your career, there are many types of engineers. What's most important to you, both in terms of your learning style, your organizational style, and as we said right from the beginning, your sense of curiosity? What's your approach to engineering that has served as a constant throughout your education and career? NADERI: I got my PhD in 1976 from USC in digital image processing. My dissertation was funded by DARPA. Five years after graduating, if one doesn't move with the technology, one becomes illiterate. The technology is growing so exponentially that I tell people who get their PhD you can't declare victory after your PhD. Five years later, you are dated if you don't keep up. Technology has moved on." A lot of the things I'm interested in right now weren't even around in the mid-70s. AI conceptually existed, but in terms of any practical application, it wasn't around. Heck, microprocessors weren't around. Apple was just coming out. If you take a look at the revolutions that have happened since then, I just don't think of myself…if someone says, "What's your PhD in?" My PhD is in electrical engineering, but I don't think of myself as an electrical engineer at this point. I think of myself as a systems engineer. Still, they don't teach systems engineering as a concentration. You learn it by osmosis. That, plus your curiosity, plus working next to a brilliant mechanical engineer, propulsion engineer, computer engineer, thermal engineer, you sort of expand into those fields. And that's one thing about JPL, people are so generous with their time. It was sufficient for me to knock on somebody's door and say, "I don't understand this topic. I've never studied it. Can you say it in a language where I can learn enough to be able to teach myself a little bit more?" JPL people are so generous with their time. I like people who are multifaceted. I recently listened to a podcast of Lex Fridman, who is an MIT graduate in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence. This was a few months ago, an interview he had with Elon Musk. They talked about SpaceX and the engines he's building, colonization of Mars, AI, self-driving cars, cryptocurrency. Then, there is Neuralink. Elon is an example of a multi-faceted person who I admire. And that does not come from formal college education. It is the curiosity and passion for life-long learning. As an aside, however, I'm very distressed by the fact that he is buying Twitter because I'm not on the same side as him on many social and political positions, but the guy is brilliant. It is amazing how he connects the dots. I wish he was more politically enlightened, but that's another discussion. ZIERLER: On that note, this has been a terrific conversation. Next time, we'll go all the way back to the beginning and learn about your family background, your upbringing in Iran. [End of Recording] ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Monday, May 23, 2022. I'm delighted to be back with Dr. Firouz Naderi. Firouz, it's great to see you again. Thank you so much for joining me. NADERI: My pleasure. ZIERLER: In our first conversation, we took a wonderful tour of your contributions and your career. Today, let's go all the way back to the beginning. Let's go back to Iran. Let's start with your parents. Tell me about them. NADERI: I am from a city in Southern Iran called Shiraz. Shiraz is a city of poets, wines, and flowers. And it is also near the capitol of the ancient Persian empire, Cyrus the Great and all the other rulers from 2,500 years ago. The ruins of the impressive palace are pretty close to Shiraz. My parents are both from Shiraz, and their families go back generations. My parents actually divorced when I was 4 years old. I went to elementary school in Shiraz, but by high school, I was enrolled in a boarding school in Tehran, the capitol city. It was run by Italian priests. I was there for my high school education. We weren't allowed to go outside. We would get to leave on Fridays, which is the beginning of the official weekend in Iran. On Fridays, we would be allowed out during the day, then we would report back in. I was not really exposed to Iranian society like other teenagers. The only exception to being inside the boarding school is when we would mischievously climb the walls and jump over to go national see soccer games, which was a passion then. At any rate, I was there until I was 18 years old. ZIERLER: Was it a Catholic school? NADERI: It was run by Catholic priests, although it was a secular school. I was brought up in that school. My best friends during the high school years were a Jewish and an Armenian. I was born into a Muslim family, so early on, I got exposed to all three religions. And I don't know what kind of an effect it had on me, because I ended up being a totally non-religious person. I don't practice any particular religion, nor do I really believe in any of them. ZIERLER: Growing up, did you have an interest in engineering, electronics, things like that? NADERI: I was a very good high school student–we'll get to college in a minute. Every year, they would publish a ranking in school and how we did. All six years when I was in high school, I was one of the top three in the class. In the US, you don't need to declare a major or direction until you're well into college, sometimes even sophomore or junior year. But in Iran, by ninth grade, you have to select one of three tracks. One was mathematics, and you would load up on math, physics, and technical courses typically headed for an engineering career. Another, the was science. You would be learning about earth sciences, animal sciences, biology, chemistry and so forth typically headed for medical school. And the third one is literature. I selected to go into mathematics when I was in ninth grade, and that's what I graduated in. A week after I finished high school, I left Iran. I first went to a family relative in London. My English was reasonably decent because the second language at my high school was English, and we were typically ahead of other teenagers who graduated in Iran. But nonetheless, I worked on my English a little bit more when I was in London. Then, in the fall of 1964, I came to America. That in itself turned out to be quite a story because my father had told me he was going to leave money for me with my step-sister in New York. I was supposed to collect the money and head to university. When I left the London airport on Pan Am Airlines, which was still operating then, I think I converted my British money to American money, and I had around two dollars and change. That was all that was in my pocket. I arrived at JFK Airport, expecting my step-sister to pick me up. And as immigrants typically do, I had this overstuffed large suitcase, schlepping it around the airport. But when I got there, and there was no sign of my step-sister. To date, I don't quite remember how I got to the city. Clearly, I didn't have a credit card, I'm not even sure there were a credit cards way back then, but somehow, I got from the airport to the city. I rather suspect maybe in those gentler days, Pan Am gave me a free ride on the Pan Am bus. But for the life of me, I don't know how I got a hotel room. I didn't have any money or a credit card. But somehow, I ended up in a hotel room. I kept calling my sister every hour or so, but nobody would answer. I think hot dogs on the streets of New York were about 15 cents then, and I would have a hot dog in the morning and a hot dog in the afternoon. I think by the sixth day, I ran out of my$2 or whatever it was. To make a long story short, my sister had expected me a week later, and she & her husband had gone to Chicago. Anyway, they came back, and they found a Telex from Pan Am under the door, and they came and fetched me. My arrival in the US was a little bit less than welcoming. I remember decades later I was flying into New York City, and as the plane was descending and I could see the Manhattan skyline, it felt good to have an American Express Gold Card in my wallet.

ZIERLER: Did you know where you were going to school before you got to the United States?

NADERI: Well, sort of. This was during the Shah's regime in Iran. You may recall that under the Shah, Iran was one of the closest allies to the US. There were no problems with visas or passports, and there were very friendly relations between the two countries. Back then there was an institution in Iran called American Friends of the Middle East. It would get admissions from several universities for students seeking to go to the US universities, then they'd run them by you, and you would select one. As I remember, they told me I was admitted to Iowa State University, which I had not heard of, and I thought they said Ohio State University, which I had heard of, and I said, "Okay, fine, that's good." I came, but the first semester, I enrolled at Michigan State University, where I had to improve my English and pass an exam before I actually went to Iowa. As it turned out, Iowa State is one of the largest electrical engineering universities in America and a really good engineering school. Except coming from Tehran to the Midwest, it was so cold that in the winter, I used to run from building to another, warming up, on the way to class.

I didn't have to take all of the first-year calculus courses because I'd taken the mathematics track in high school. By the time you graduate from high school in Iran, you're well into first- and second-year calculus and math in American universities (at least in those days), so I was well ahead. Rather than taking the courses, I took the tests and passed them, then continued with other courses. I was not a very good student as an undergraduate. Unlike typical 18- and 19-year-olds, who had been brought up in the American society, I was brought up in a closed confined boarding school, sheltered from outside society. So, I really did my growing up in America, making up for lost teenage years. School was not a priority. I had other things on my mind than studies. I was quiet, an average student at Iowa State, even though 50 years later, they inducted me in their electrical engineering hall of fame. I certainly did not earn it when I was in school.

ZIERLER: It was for what you did afterwards.

NADERI: Yes. And it really was good for me to go to the Midwest because it grounded me. It would've been different if I had been brought up on the East or West Coast. I wouldn't really know what America was like. I rather suspect many Americans who have not lived in the Midwest don't know what America is like. I ended up typically going home for Thanksgiving with my buddies. I remember this one incident where I went home for Thanksgiving, and they lived on a farm, and the grandmother of my mate asked me where I was from. I said, "Iran." And she had this puzzled look and said, "Honey, where is that?" I was being a bit mischievous, and I said, "You know the highway leaving Des Moines and going north?" She said, "Yes." I said, "You just take that directly to Wisconsin, and once you get to Wisconsin, you hang a right and go for 9,000 miles and you get to my home town" I'm not sure she quite got the joke, she just nodded.

I came to Los Angeles after I graduated, and I went to a small firm in Santa Barbara, starting as an electrical engineer there. Probably, it was as much of a cultural change going from Iran to Ames, Iowa as it was going from Ames, Iowa to Los Angeles.

But the climate was much more to my liking. And during my time I in Santa Barbara, I got my green card. With the friendly relationship between Iran and the US at the time, there was no issue. What I didn't know is, as soon as you get your Green Card, you become eligible for the military draft which then was compulsory. I actually had to register for selective service at the time. There was a lottery based on your birthday, and they would select who would be going to the Army. Typically, of the 365 days, I think the first 150 whose birthday came up in a lottery would end up actually going, and the rest would be very unlikely to get drafted. Mine came at 360 or something, which was good because the Vietnam War was still going on at the time.

I saved some money for a year and a half, and then I enrolled in USC to go get my master's degree. By the time I got my master's, I again became a rather good student. In graduate school, I bore down and did well. I got my master's, I think, with an average pretty close to 4.0. At that time, I got a grant from DARPA, which underwrote my master's degree. My undergraduate was paid by my parents. My father, who was rather well-off, paid for my undergraduate.

ZIERLER: What was his profession?

NADERI: He was a playboy. My father's father died when my father was 2 years old, and he was the only child. My grandfather was a major land-owner and quite rich. We're talking Rockefeller-rich kind of guy. And all of that was inherited by his 2-year-old son. He really never had to work unless it amused him. He married five times. My mother was his third wife, and they divorced when I was 4 years old. I didn't see much of him. He provided for us because he could. As I said, I went to a boarding school, then I came to America. I really wasn't particularly close to my father. But I'm thankful that he paid for my undergraduate education. After that, I essentially self-financed my master's. And my PhD was all on grants at USC, which, just like Caltech, was not particularly inexpensive as a private school. But DARPA paid for my education.

In 1976, I got my PhD, and back then it was the golden years in Iran under the Shah. Everything was good and booming. By that time, I'd been away from Iran for 12 years, even though I had a green card, I decided to go back and see what it was like. When I went to Iran, at that time, army training was compulsory. I was probably the only person who was eligible for the draft in America and ended up in the army Iran. But that was before the RevolutionIslamic Republic.

But if you had a PhD, they'd take you to boot camp for six months. It was more of a boy scout-like camp than it was a barracks kind of situation. It wasn't a serious army education. The duration is actually two years, but if you had a PhD, you would go to boot camp for six months, and the remaining year and a half, you would be assigned to a government agency. I got assigned to what was then the newly founded Remote Sensing Agency of Iran, and I became its technical director. We had a contract with the Landsat, which was an American earth science satellite, ongoing even now. As the satellite would go over different countries, if you had a proper ground station, they would end up sending you the data about all the natural resources about water resources and agricultural resources. It was an Earth-monitoring satellite. We had a contract with an American firm, GE, I believe. We bought the terminal, and as I said, I was the director for it. This was 1977. I was in Iran for three years, from 1976 to 1979. Then in 1979, the Revolution in Iran happened.

ZIERLER: You knew at the time you'd never go back?

NADERI: No, I didn't know that I would become political. Not right away. I came in and within the first month I was hired by JPL in 1979. That's when I started there, and I ended up staying 36 years. At the beginning, I had no interest in politics except for the fact that I knew the government that was in charge of my home country was really evil. But I put the whole thing behind me and focused on my work at JPL and making a life for myself in America.

ZIERLER: If we can go back to your thesis research at USC, what did you do your dissertation on?

NADERI: At the time, DARPA was working on digital image processing. I was an electrical engineer, and within electrical engineering, I was a telecommunications engineer, and within telecommunications engineering, I was looking at digital image processing and coding images for transmission. This was long before laptops and even microprocessors were coming in. I wrote my dissertation in digital image processing.

Going back to my connection to Iran, in 2009, this was the time of the first really serious opposition (the Green Movement) to the Islamic Republic. At that time, because we had landed on Mars, and I was becoming sort of a folk hero in Iran, people and students knew me, and they kept writing me, saying, "You're a well-known figure. Why are you silent? Why don't you express your opposition to this government and support the opposition?" From 2009, I became fairly political. Of course, that was the beginning of social media – Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I took to these platforms and became a fairly loud critic of the government. By that time, I knew I could never go back, not so long as these guys were in power. Before that, potentially, I could have.

And they had set up a press conference for me, and there were only so many credentials they were giving to reporters. But reporters knew that since the press conference was in Tehran, eventually, I would fly to Shiraz, my home town, to see my parents and relatives. Quite a number of the reporters actually booked the same flight I was taking to Shiraz to be able to interview me on the flight. Of course, none of it happened. Before 2009, I could've gone back. But after 2009, there's no doubt that straight from the airport, I would be ushered to prison. I really miss not being able to see Iran one more time. I really want to go to Iran for a visit. I still have family there. But until something happens there, and this government goes away, it's something I cannot do.

ZIERLER: Back in graduate school, at USC, being in Los Angeles, was JPL on your radar at all? Were you interested in space science and applying these issues to what was happening at JPL?

NADERI: No. To be honest, when you interview people of my age, half the people who were in NASA say, "I was a kid who was inspired by Apollo, and I always knew I wanted to be in the space business and become an astronaut." One of the things I love doing is mentoring young people, and I tell them, "Look, this whole thing about having to map out your future when you're still a teenager is nuts. Even after I graduated I didn't know I would end up in NASA. That was not even on my radar. As we talked before, I went to Iran and the Revolution changed everything.

Finally, when I entered JPL, it really was based on the work I did for my PhD. It was in telecommunications. At the time, when mobile phones weren't around, we were designing a mobile satellite, which would hover over the US and cover it with 60 or 70 cells, just like a cellular network does in Los Angeles. That way, you could have connectivity when you go from coast to coast, which you couldn't have then. So, even when I finally entered JPL I entered on the strength of my telecommunications background. Nothing to do with what NASA proper does in terms of space. That's how I entered JPL.

It took me a year or two to say, "I can have a job at JPL, but this is a fringe activity at JPL. This isn't what JPL is all about. I can continue in this path, always have a good job, but if I want to get ahead at JPL, I need to switch to their bread and butter, which is space science."

It was after a few years at JPL that I applied for a section manager job. I didn't get it. Indignant, I decided, "If they're not going to select me, I'm going to leave JPL." I ended up going to NASA Headquarters for two years as a detailee. And that was my last real job in anything related to my PhD or to telecom. When I came back from Washington to JPL (detailees were normally for one year), I ended up staying two–from there on, and I became really a true JPL-er. From there on, even though it was not premeditated, my career at JPL formed around five-year blocks. As soon as I would get really comfortable in an area, I would switch and go to another area where I had to work hard to catch up with other people. I'm a curious person, and I love learning. It's a lifelong habit. If I'm learning, I'm happy. The first couple years in each of these mini-careers, I had quite a steep learning curve. And I really did enjoy it. Changing jobs so frequently was not normal but today, when you look at younger people, they job hop very easily. Right now, people stay 18 months, then go someplace else for two years, then 18 months somewhere else. And they can't figure out how I could stay at JPL for 36 years. Surprisingly, even though people call all of us who work at NASA rocket scientists, there's quite a breadth of work at JPL. Earth science is nothing like astrophysics, which is nothing like planetary science. You could change within JPL almost like going completely to a different company. I became a decent systems engineer within this system.

I gained a very broad base of knowledge, and I knew something about most of the things JPL did because of my hopping around. Before Elachi became director in 2001, I happened to be in astrophysics. As I mentioned before, it was about then when the first exoplanet was actually discovered. Before then, everything was statistical, arguing how could there not be any other exoplanets given the vast number of stars? But no observational evidence until 1995. Then, the study of life elsewhere in the solar system and the galaxy became really hot, and I became a program manager of a NASA program called Origins, as in the origins of life. Ed Weiler was a director for Space Science at NASA, and he was promoting this personally. He had a very broad portfolio, but he really loved Origins. And he liked what I did managing this program. One of the products I produced, a pamphlet describing the program, was put on Vice President Al Gore's desk, and he really liked it. During my career, I had a testy relationship with Ed Weiler, but he liked what I was doing with Origins.

This brings us to 1999 and 2000, when we had the two failures at Mars. It was a pretty big embarrassment. Dan Goldin was the administrator, and he was pushing faster, better, cheaper, which in part was responsible for the failures, where we kept cutting costs and finally got to the point where not enough eyeballs were looking at what we were building. And that caused the failures. They decided to look for a program manager for NASA. Ed Weiler, who was impressed with me on Origins, which was a really small program, suggested me to Ed Stone. "Why don't we make Naderi the program manager for Mars?" At the time, the question of how we would recover from failures was very much on everybody's mind. This was my big break. Even though I had my ups and downs with Weiler (mostly down) I am grateful to him for giving me this break. Being good is one thing but being in the right place at the right time is another.

In the summer of 2000, with a group of people, we sat down to plan out a roadmap for what the next decade of the Mars program should be, learning from the mistakes we'd experienced. Just to give you an example, before us, Mars Sample Return was scheduled to happen in 2008. Now, it's going to happen in 2028, 20 years later. It would have been impossible and it would have led to another major failure. Talking about irrational exuberance. The Mars program had adopted a little bit of a cowboy mentality.

At any rate, we ended up redesigning the Mars program. And since then, I think we have had an unprecedented eight missions to Mars without a single failure. It's much more of a solid science-based program. When we landed with the twin rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, in 2004, all of a sudden, in Iran, I went from being an obscure expatriate working in America to a folk hero, particularly for young people. To date, reflecting back on my life and my career, probably the thing I'm most proud of is routinely running into people at MIT, Stanford, USC, Berkeley, UCLA, who say, "I was teenager, watching the movies from the landing. And my parents told me, 'One day, you could be another Naderi at NASA.' You were instrumental in me picking a technical field. You changed my life." Those are the people I randomly run into, and I assume there are many more I won't ever get a chance to meet.

Working on the Mars program was the pinnacle of my career. I'm very proud of what I contributed. I never lost the sight that in NASA and JPL, everything is teamwork. There is no one person responsible for anything we do, success or failure. But I was blessed to be getting a leading role as a program manager at NASA and, with the help of many others, to do the planning for the Mars program, which has become so successful. But aside from personal and technical achievements, this thing about possibly influencing others, I'm also very proud of. And you have to remember, it's quite different now than my teenage years in Iran. Then, the two countries, Iran and America, were incredibly close. Now, they couldn't be any further apart. Many of these people don't even remember the period when the Shah led Iran. They've grown up in a period of hostility. They can't even imagine how somebody from Iran would end up in one of the marquee institutions in the US, NASA, then get a marquee job, like program manager for NASA's Mars program. This sounds incredible to them. But their parents say, "If he can do it, you can do it, even with a country that's not friendly to us." That makes me happy, that I might have steered some young people in a technical direction.

I might have mentioned this before but I love teaching, and I love talking to younger people. And right now, I have many mentees, who are typically in college years to mid-career, 35 or 36, both American-born and Iranian-born. And that's another thing I'm very, very happy about, particularly when one of them calls and says, "Guess what? I'm about to become a father." I say, "Oh, fantastic. I'm really thrilled. What do your parents say about it?" "Oh, we haven't called them yet. You were the first one I called." That, or when they get a new job, or they want career advice, they want to start a company. I got married late in life. My wife and I were both over 40 when we got married, and the marriage didn't last. We didn't have any children. I feel particularly fulfilled with these two dozen mentees, all incredibly bright young men and women that I mentor. It's very fulfilling in that sense.

ZIERLER: I'd like to ask a few technical questions. First of all, tell me about the NASA Scatterometer. How did that come about, and what were some of its key contributions to the missions?

NADERI: The NASA Scatterometer (NSCAT) was my first project management job. This scatterometer measured winds over the ocean. The winds are the driving force that move the ocean and regulate our environment. NSCAT was an instrument, not a total mission, but expensive. It was close to $300 million. And it was designed to go on the Japanese ADEOS (later renamed Midori) Earth science mission. It involved long, stick-like antennas, and a very high-voltage power supply, which we were not particularly good at JPL. We delivered the instrument to the Japanese space program, and around that time, Elachi became director, and I moved to another job. When ADEOS launched, the Japanese spacecraft unfortunately developed an electrical problem (unrelated to NSCAT), and the mission was not successful, and it shut down early. That was my first learning experience on how to manage schedules and people, and how to deliver a product. That was my training. ZIERLER: When the Mars failures in the late 1990s happened, how did that influence you personally and JPL generally when you were named program manager for Mars Exploration? NADERI: By that time, I was deeply embedded in astrophysics. The early James Webb Space Telescope, which just launched, was called at the time Next-Generation Space Telescope (NGST), that and two other pre-project activities (SIM and TPF) were the core of the Origins program. Origins was about building big telescopes. I was managing that program, really away from planetary science and Mars. I was not in locked in to their day-to-day activities. After the failures, JPL and NASA became the butt of jokes. We don't normally make 11 o'clock nightly news or are featured in the opening monologues of comedians. "How many NASA engineers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" kind of thing. It was an embarrassing time. It was hard. Every failure in retrospect seems like a stupid, preventable mistake. And I learned that many of the mistakes have nothing to do with technical missteps. With any failures, as you can imagine, NASA forms a blue-ribbon committee to dig into the failures and say, "What went wrong?" As I mentioned earlier, the investigation found out that yes, we had strayed from some best practices at JPL. The Committee found two primary contributors to the failures, one sociological, one technical. The sociological one was that too many people in NASA were talking to too many people at JPL. There were no clean channels of communication. People at JPL didn't know what were casual comments and what were actually orders from NASA. Was the person who made the comment in the chain of command and could empower others, or was it just somebody in a hallway saying something that would not to be taken very seriously? They decided that one of the corrective actions was to clean up that channel. They were going to put one person in NASA headquarters, which turned out to be Scott Hubbard, who would become a director at NASA headquarters, then one person who would become the NASA Mars Program Manager at JPL (which turned out to be me), and the only communications back and forth would be between these two people. Even if Elachi, who was by then the JPL Director, would tell me, "I want you to do such-and-such," if it was not coming from Scott, I wasn't obligated to take it even though Elachi was signing my paycheck, so to speak. Elachi would know better, anyway. That really cleaned up programmatically what we did between NASA and JPL. Then, technically, we codified many of the best practices at JPL that from generation to generation were almost like oral history, which people like John Casani and Tom Gavin would pass along. Mat Landano codified it into a technical handbook (originally called the Blue Book), which has grown since, maybe overgrown now. But it became a reference book for all the project managers to make sure not to take certain shortcuts. That Book was later emulated by other NASA Centers too. That was what came out of the Mars program, both the sociological aspects of how to conduct a program and also, going back to our roots and taking much more technically sound steps. ZIERLER: As the program manager, what was the reporting structure? Who reported to you, and who did you report to? NADERI: Given the structure I just discussed, I was the NASA Mars Program Manager, which meant wearing that hat, I wouldn't be reporting programmatically to the JPL director, which was Elachi at the time. He was my administrative boss but not my programmatic boss. My programmatic boss would go back to NASA headquarters to Scott Hubbard. A program, as we designed it, is a collection of scientifically and operationally interconnected projects. But each one of the projects would have a project manager who would manage the project. The project managers, again, programmatically, reported to me, but administratively, because there were projects at JPL, would report up the line through the JPL structure. ZIERLER: In what ways did you contribute to the idea that the Mars Exploration program was not any one mission but a series of missions, and that the current mission would build on the last and contribute to the next? NADERI: I should not toot my own horn. I really do believe that everything we accomplished, we accomplished as a team. But we did not come up with a blueprint for a mission, we came up with a blueprint for a program. The first decade was all lined up, and it was supposed to be an interleave of orbital assets, which would get the global truth or information, with landed assets. There was scientific, technological and operational connectivity among missions. Each mission building on what came before them and contributing to those coming after. And it became apparent that these science spacecrafts we have orbiting Mars could double as a telecommunications relay mission for landed assets. At the beginning, it sort of sounded like a cool idea. But very quickly, it became the standard way of sending information back and forth from rovers to Earth through these orbital assets. It became very clear that you start with science, you take a look at what you've learned from the previous mission, react to it, and scientifically build the next mission. We really went back to science-driven missions, where the project managers and project scientists became partners. That started about that time. Elachi was very much instrumental in that. Charles is a very unique individual, a hybrid scientist-engineer. And this marriage between the science and engineering intensified under him. But to go back to the question you asked, it became fundamental. It was one of the tenets of the program definition that we were designing a chain of missions, not one mission at a time, and they were going to be science-based, and they were going to be technologically, operationally, and scientifically building on what has come before and contributing to what comes after. It was not only scientific coupling but also technologically based. ZIERLER: I wonder if you could compare the drama and some of the emotions of both launch day and landing day for Spirit and Opportunity. NADERI: Multiply it by a factor of 10,000 for landing. Spirit and Opportunity were not the first Mars missions for me as program manager. The first was actually an orbiter, Odyssey, which is still orbiting Mars some 20-odd years later, since 2001. That was the very first mission I was the program manager for, and it was the first mission after the failures. There's a Doppler signal that we track when the spacecraft approaches Mars. The spacecraft engines do a major burn on approach to Mars and when spacecraft is captured and put in the Mars orbit, there is a distinct change (a flattening of the Doppler signal) that we observe and that's the only indication we have as to whether we were captured by Mars, crashed into it, flew by it, or whatever. I remember Gavin and I were standing with a bunch of other folks in the control room, watching the Doppler, which kept increasing and increasing. It was the time it was supposed to turn over and flatten. It might've lasted three or four seconds longer than when we had expected. I can distinctly remember that I could hear that my heart was beating, not through my body, but through the air and through my ears. Gavin and I turned and looked at each other like, "Oh my God, is this going to be the third failure?" It was one of the most stressful moments of my life. Fortunately, it didn't last more than a few seconds, and the Doppler signal behaved as it was supposed to behave, and we were okay. But when Spirit landed in 2004, it was unbelievable. I didn't know until somebody told me, "Firouz ,maybe you don't realize, you happened to be on CNN, and you were crying." I wasn't aware that tears were actually rolling down my cheeks. I decided not to make a fool of myself, and I left to go to the hallway, where I ran into Pete Theisinger, who was the project manager for Spirit, and we both lost it completely once we were outside. I'm not a parent, but I assume parents, at the moment of birth, have that amazing experience where they can't believe what has happened to them. I can't compare the two, having not been a parent, but it was amazingly emotional. 21 days later, when Opportunity landed, I was a lot more composed. But nothing in my career will ever compare with the night of the landing of Spirit. It was just unbelievable. I had this additional self-imposed stress. I was thinking if we fail the headlines would say "NASA fails again at Mars and this time under a native Iranian Program Manager"!! The pressures that we manufacture and put on ourselves over and above the real pressures. ZIERLER: Tell me about being honored with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. What was that like for you personally? NADERI: Before that, I had gotten a Distinguished Leadership Medal for my managing of NSCAT. But this one, I didn't think I would get because if you read the description of the medal, it says something like, "We give this award to people where no other award that NASA gives seems adequate enough for the work." It's their highest award, and it was leaked to me that I was getting it. It turned out that the actual presentation was by Al Diaz, who, at the time, was the head of the Space Science Mission at NASA. There was a meeting of some sort, and NASA Headquarters, after it was finished, some 20-30 people went to this restaurant. It was pre-arranged and he brought it there, and he gave it to me. I have it here in my home in my den. There are different awards you get that mean different things to you. This was for my NASA career, which I was extremely proud to get. There's another medal called the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, a Congressionally recognized medal they give to people who are either first- or second-generation coming from another country to honor them for the contributions they've made to America That, I got in 2005. That was different. You feel a different sort of pride because they honor you for contributions you've made to your adopted country. ZIERLER: What were the circumstances of you becoming the JPL Associate Director for Product Formulation and Strategy, and what did that mean for JPL at the time? NADERI: I was program manager for Mars for five years. It was during that pivotal five-year period where I would get restless. In one of my quiet hours, with Elachi, I said, "Charles, I've done what I can for the Mars program. I think it's running smoothly. I'm looking for a new challenge and another job. What do you have for me?" He said, "There aren't many better jobs than Mars program manager. What do you want?" I said, "I want to be the chief strategist for JPL." He said, "In other words, you want my job." We sort of laughed it off, and I left. But about two or three months later, I was having another quiet hour with Charles, and he said, "I've been talking to my wife. I'm working too hard. I need to take it a bit easier." (Not that he ever did up to the last day he was at JPL.) But he said, "Do you remember what you said to me about the chief strategist position? What if I create a new office called the Associate Director for formulation and strategy, and I name you to that?" Knowing Charles as I do, I said, "Am I going to be the Associate Director in charge of formulation and strategy, or am I going to just implement what you tell me, and everything is going to emanate from you?" He laughed again. He knew that I knew he could never hand it all to me, and really, he shouldn't have, as director of JPL. But he created an office which looked to the future of JPL and gave me a budget authority of how we would spend internal investment money at JPL, which was a considerable sum, many tens of millions of dollars, and how we would develop technologies, define missions, and build those missions to the point that they become viable. Then, go ahead and pitch it to NASA headquarters in hopes of securing the big bucks, the$400 or $500 million, which would then become a project. It was front end engine of JPL. it fit well into my love of strategy and formulation/conceptualization. When you are implementing a project, you follow the recipe of what has made you successful in the past. You have written documents on how things should be done. You don't want some yahoos who decide, "I know this was successful in the past, but I'm going to do it this way." You play it by the books, stay disciplined and pay attention to details. In formulation, by contrast it's a blank canvas. You have to be creative, you have to be imaginative. There's no rulebook that says how to do the next mission or how to come up with the next mission. I love that, that fits my personality, and this office became one of the important institutions at JPL. I was the first AD, the late Jakob van Zyl became the second one, and Dave Gallagher is the current incumbent. The future of JPL, pushing JPL towards innovation, more so maybe than the past, is the charter of this office. I was the inaugural associate director, and I'm glad to say that it has become an important aspect of JPL. Next to my Mars Program Manager job this is the job I liked most. But to be honest I loved all of my jobs at JPL. As I said in my retirement letter to JPLers. I was there for 36 years, but it all went by in the blink of an eye. A magical place to work. ZIERLER: In what ways did you promote a startup culture, even from within JPL? NADERI: In our first sit-down, I told you that when I left JPL, I got into startups. It doesn't seem foreign to me because I started it at JPL. My first love when I went to college was really to become an architect. At the time, there weren't all these fancy CAD designs, machines, and all that. It was pens and pencils, and you had to have some ability to draw things, and I found out that was not my strength. But architecting was. Trying to imagine things and make them happen. JPL has so many bright people, and you sit down and talk to them, and they say something that sparks something in your mind, you build up on what they say. I was watching on YouTube about an outfit up north called IDEOS, where they created an environment, where people would come and do brainstorming, building on each other's ideas, and out of that, give birth to a new technical idea. It really struck a fancy with me, and Elachi had given me carte blanche, so I created an environment in JPL called Left Field -- as in, generating ideas out of left field. We created that environment and recruited the right people. Some people at JPL are exceptional at project management, some people are idea people. Because most of the strong personalities in the past at JPL had grown out of implementing missions, Casani, and Gavin, and the like, the notion at JPL was that if you wanted to be somebody, you would go into mission implementation, not mission formulation. Mission formulation people, sort of play around and wait until a real mission implementation job becomes available. Mission formulation people were almost second-class citizens. I tried to change that culture. At that time, one of the new buildings we built, building 321, the Flight Projects Office, a beautiful, shiny, new building, was an homage to people who implement missions. I went to Elachi and said, "I want a building that is also dedicated to formulation." There was an existing building, and we became the anchor tenant of that building. And I put a sign on it that said Mission Formulation Building. And gradually, we changed this perception that if you want to be somebody, you really need to go into implementation. Formulation, startup culture, and thinking of JPL as a three-legged stool (Science, Technology and Engineering) became accepted and this started attracting bright people to the front-end engine of JPL. I like to think I had something to do with it, and if I did, I'm as happy with that as anything I've done at JPL. ZIERLER: Did you see your move to become director for solar exploration as a lateral move? NADERI: I think so, yes. Again, it was not a five-year itch but a six-year itch because I was Associate Director for six years – longer than any other job I held at JPL. I thought I had another five or six years ahead of me, but I couldn't see staying as associate director for another five years on top of the six I had already done.. When the opportunity came, Elachi said, "I want you to go run the Solar System Exploration Directorate." The portfolio for the directorate had run down. We were at$500 or $600 million a year, and it had dipped down to$200 million. They needed somebody to go build it up. It needed someone to rebuild and bring in new missions, which played to my formulation strength, and we went there, and within a couple years, we built it back up to about $500 or$600 million. It was the right opportunity for me and it matched my personality. Elachi asked me to do it, and it was the right time to do it. And to be frank I think Charles wanted to give Jakob [van Zyl] the experience he needed to possibly later be selected as Director of JPL after Charles stepped down. But that was not to be.

ZIERLER: Between all of the high-profile missions, Cassini, Juno, what was most interesting to you personally? What was the science and engineering you loved being involved in the most?

NADERI: At that time, Mars had bifurcated into a new directorate, but I am forever a Martian. But close to my heart are what we helped start going back to my Origins days, which was looking at where else might be habitable, the origins of life, and how life arose on Earth or anywhere in the solar system, any finding other planets like Earth. That stuff was drilled into me since the 1990s. I got very much interested in the Europa series of missions -- to be able to go to Europa, orbit it first, then land on it, and maybe eventually melt through the thick ice and into the ocean below. That seemed to me like a program worth pursuing because it needed to be a sequence of cascaded technologies, missions and science findings. That whole ocean world became very attractive to me. We started Clipper, which is going on and will launch in a couple years. It is an orbiter. It is a very exciting mission to learn about the ocean underneath Europa. But I was disappointed when the decadal report that just came out, which did not emphasize a Europa lander, which I've become very attached to and we thought we had developed the technology for. I hope it will happen someday. Along with Mars, the ocean worlds, Europa and Enceladus, these became my passion.

ZIERLER: Is that where you're most optimistic we might find life beyond planet Earth?

NADERI: Not that I have the scientific qualifications to opine on that, but listening to the scientists who are qualified, yes. I think within the solar system, if you're talking about extinct life, probably still Mars is the hot bed. Below the surface, there may be some extant microbial life on Mars. But if I listen to the scientists, for extant life, yes, I think Europa and Enceladus.

ZIERLER: What about all of your work on exoplanets? Where are you most confident we might find bio-signatures or techno-signatures that suggest there's life beyond even our solar system?

NADERI: I think first, we need to build up the inventory. When I was the Origins program manager, we had only one we'd discovered. Now, I think there are in excess of 4,000 identified, mostly through Kepler. Some of these exoplanets are unlikely to have biology on them, but there are some, as best we know, that are in the habitable zone of their parent stars, and their size is such that they could have an atmosphere and liquid water. For the foreseeable future, I think our best hope is through analysis of atmospheres, to see if we see something unusual, some smoking gun that would suggest there's something on the planet pumping these gases into their atmospheres. Starting with JWST, we should be able to get some of the planets that are now good candidates, that have been detected before by prior telescopes, and maybe we get lucky and see something. I don't know what we would do. I can't imagine within my lifetime or even a couple generations after we'd be able to travel to one that may have inhabitants. As people say, it has to be a generational travel, where multiple generations would live and die on the spaceship that's targeted to go there, unless something extraordinary happens in physics, which we don't know yet, which would give us the speed requirements to get there in one generation. The closest one possible still would be four lightyears away. Even if you go at one tenth the speed of light, which we're not anywhere close to reaching, it would take 40 years one way. Future generations will have the burden of carrying that mantle.

ZIERLER: When did you start thinking about retiring from JPL?

NADERI: I had this mental determination that I didn't want to be working full time when I was 70 years old. I wanted to do something else, not just this. Elachi's a year younger than I, and I went to him maybe about a year before, when I was 69, and said I was thinking of retirement. He said, "Go away. I don't want to hear it." Then, six months later, I said, "Charles, I'm serious. I'm quitting." He said, "Why don't you wait?" At that time, it was obvious he was going to step down as a director in July, and it was Christmas when I was telling him this. He said, "Wait, and we'll retire together." I said, "No, I'll be over 70. I don't want that." He relented. I spent 36 years at JPL, a place I dearly love. It was a privilege for me to work there. But beyond a certain point, you sort of also run out of innovative juices. I stepped down. I still consult once in a while. For example, this coming week, we're shaping our proposal for Discovery. I'm going in to see if I can help. But I continued that formulation urge with the startups. In some sense, it's a continuation of the culture, although few, if any, of the people I've worked with deal with space. But they're all in technical areas.

ZIERLER: Coming to this country and not finding your sister to all that you've accomplished, what are you most surprised at in terms of the opportunities that were available to you here?

NADERI: I have spent something close to 75% of my life in America. When I think of my country, I think of America. When I think of my home town, I think of Los Angeles. I don't feel like a guest or immigrant in the country. I feel it is my country. I'm vocal in political discourse. I feel an obligation, as I think all citizens should, to vote and engage in political discourse. It's home. I'm not proud of everything that America does, but then, I say, "Compared to who? Compared to what?" I will never lose my affinity for my birth country. If somebody said, "You can go anywhere on Earth for two weeks, first class, expenses paid. Where will you go?" I'd say, "No, thank you. I'll pay my own way, economy class, to go to Iran." I miss it dearly. But to me, home is America and Los Angeles. I find myself lucky to have been born in a country with an ancient history, then to come to a relatively young country with all the accomplishments, despite the faults we find with it, still a democracy with human rights, which is lacking right now in Iran. And I don't feel guilty when I point out the flaws in America, even though guests are not supposed to speak ill of the host, whether it's earned or not. But I don't feel like a guest. I do give myself the right to criticize America where it's warranted. But I feel like a proud American. I love America. And I'm glad I ended up here.

ZIERLER: Because Iran has such as strong culture and history of science and engineering going back centuries, are you hopeful that students today, earlier generations, have the same opportunities you did to get out if they want to?

NADERI: That's nearly an impossibility. First of all, getting a visa to come to America right now–I told you there was this organization called the Friends of the Middle East. I went to them, I got my applications, and at that time, I didn't know what university I'd end up at. Now, because of the internet, they know everything about the educational system, but they can't get visas to come over. Except for top graduates, there's a huge brain drain in Iran, where the best of the best, which would be considered the best of the best here, ends up here. But for the vast majority, it's a distant dream.

ZIERLER: Finally, last question. For all you've accomplished, what's left for you to do? What else do you want to accomplish?

NADERI: I think professionally, nothing. The last thing I would be doing, probably until the end, would be mentoring young people. That's very dear to me, and I love my mentees like they were my kids. I'm a person who didn't have biological kids but probably now has two dozen people who look at me as a parent, and I look at them as my own kids. I want to continue with that.

ZIERLER: Firouz, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I'm so glad we were able to do this. I'd like to thank you so much.