Firouz Naderi, an Iranian American scientist who directed the Mars program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, including two successful landings on the planet, died on June 9 in Los Angeles. He was 77.
His family said that Dr. Naderi died in a medical facility from complications of a fall last month that damaged his spinal cord and left him paralyzed. “Life is unpredictable,” Dr. Naderi said in a statement on Facebook after the accident.
Laurie Leshin, the director of the laboratory, said in an email that Dr. Naderi was “a visionary whose work impacted many of the space missions developed at JPL over the past three decades.” She also said that he was a “brilliant mentor to those leading our space exploration missions today.”
For many Iranians and Iranian Americans, Dr. Naderi’s career demonstrated how far an immigrant could reach in America — in his case, literally for the stars. In an era when news of Iran was often negative, he was seen as a source of national pride. Many young Iranian scientists said he inspired their professional journeys.
Dr. Naderi was also an outspoken advocate for human rights and democracy in Iran. During the uprising against the government over the past year, he helped purchase and transfer about 100 Starlink satellite receivers to Iranian activists so they could log on to the internet without government restrictions.
He served on the boards of a number of nonprofit organizations focused on Iran-related issues including promoting civic engagement of Iranians and Iranian culture in the United States, and childhood education and the treatment for pediatric cancer in Iran.
He mentored dozens of Iranian scientists and university students, in the United States and in Iran, whom he referred to as the children he never had. He often said in interviews that he considered influencing young minds to be his biggest accomplishment.
In 2017, when the Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi asked Dr. Naderi and another scientist to accept his second Oscar, for “The Salesman” (he was boycotting the ceremony in protest of President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban), Dr. Naderi speculated that the request had to do with his association with space travel.
“Once you go away from the Earth into space, and you look back at the Earth, you see it as a single blue marble,” he said. “You see no borders, no lines, separating people.”
Dr. Naderi was appointed to manage NASA’s Mars program in 2000. He is credited with retooling it after a couple of previous failures.
He directed at least five missions to Mars. He supervised the Mars Odyssey, a spacecraft launched in 2001 that is still orbiting the planet, collecting data to find out what Mars is made of and to detect water and ice. In 2004, he oversaw the landings of the robots Spirit and Opportunity, which explored the planet’s surface.
In 2006, he oversaw the launch of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is also looking for evidence of water. And he ran the Mars Sample Return program, which is scheduled to launch in two phases in 2027 and 2028 with the goal of returning samples collected by an earlier rover to Earth.
He was also the manager of the Origins program, which studies how life could exist on other worlds. And he laid the groundwork for NASA’s plan to launch an orbiter to circle Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, to search for extraterrestrial life.
“Firouz Naderi was a giant,” the NASA administrator and former senator Bill Nelson said on Twitter. “He helped to redefine humanity’s knowledge about Mars and reinvigorate our sense of curiosity.”
Firouz Michael Naderi was born on March 25, 1946, in Shiraz, Iran, the youngest of three sons of Karim Naderi, a wealthy landowner, and Homa Ilchi, his third wife, who came from a prominent political family.
They divorced when Firouz was 4 years old. His father gained full custody and banned visits between the boys and their mother. Firouz was placed under the care of his father’s first wife, Ehteram Saltaneh Naderi, who raised him until he was 12.
Firouz was sent to a Roman Catholic boarding school in Tehran, where he was a star student and a math whiz. But a career in space exploration, he said in later interviews, was never on his radar.
He left Iran in 1964 to attend Iowa State University, where he received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. After earning a doctorate in digital image processing at the University of Southern California, he returned to Iran in 1976.
He worked for the Iranian government as director of the Iranian Remote Sensing Agency, which used satellite data from the American Landsat program to monitor Iran’s natural resources, until the Islamic revolution toppled the monarchy in 1979.
The country’s new leaders were suspicious of anyone with ties to the West, and Dr. Naderi fled to Los Angeles. He was hired by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a telecommunications engineer and, once there, developed an interest in space science.
He rose quickly from various technical jobs to executive positions, related first to satellite programs and then to space exploration.
In his early 40s, he married Parvin Kassaie, a fellow Iranian American who worked as the laboratory’s educational affairs office manager. The marriage lasted only a few years, but they remained close friends until Dr. Naderi’s death.
Dr. Naderi is survived by his sisters, Pari Naderi, Mahin Naderi and Niloufar Arabsheibani, and his brothers, Kazem, Ahoura and Sia Naderi. Another brother, John, died last year.
After leaving the Mars program, Dr. Naderi became an associate director at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, overseeing new project strategies. He was later the laboratory’s director of solar system exploration, overseeing missions to Saturn, Jupiter and Europa.
Dr. Naderi longed to return to Iran, but he never did. During his time at NASA, he was advised not to travel there for security reasons, and after he retired he became an outspoken critic of Iran’s government.
Kazem Naderi, an architect in New York, said that his brother kept a jasmine plant on his balcony facing the Pacific Ocean because the scent reminded him of the gardens of Shiraz.
His countrymen treated him like a folk hero. When he visited London, Iranian university students chased his car, knocking on the windows, Ms. Arabsheibani said in a telephone interview. Dr. Naderi stopped the car and got out to talk to the students.
“They asked for autographs and pictures,” Ms. Arabsheibani said, “and he was so pleased and humble, talking to everyone.”
Dr. Naderi received NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and an Ellis Island Medal of Honor for distinguished contributions to American society.
Upon his retirement in 2016, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after him at NASA’s request. The asteroid, 5515 Naderi, is a rock about six miles in diameter orbiting the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, far from the borders separating people on Earth.
Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter for The New York Times based in New York. Previously she was a senior writer and war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years based in the Middle East. @farnazfassihi
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