A Brilliant Legacy: Remembering Dr. Firouz Naderi’s Cosmic Journey

Davar Ardalan
7 min readJun 10, 2023

Heartfelt reflections on the profound loss of a true legend in our Iranian-American community. Dr. Naderi’s unwavering support and boundless innovative spirit instilled in me a profound sense of purpose to give back and uplift our community.

In the vast expanse of the cosmos, a star has dimmed today, leaving behind a void in our hearts. Dr. Firouz Naderi, a beacon of brilliance and wisdom, has passed away, leaving a legacy that will forever inspire us.

Today, as we bid farewell to Dr. Firouz Naderi, our hearts overflow with gratitude for the indelible mark he left on the scientific community, the Iranian-American diaspora, and the world at large. His passion for science, innovation, space exploration, and beloved Persian heritage will continue to guide us, reminding us to dream big, to reach for the stars, and to honor the stories that shape our collective identity.

From the realms of NASA JPL to the call of startups, Dr. Naderi stood tall, a genius among geniuses. His leadership in guiding solar system exploration was mesmerizing, as he steered us on a celestial journey to Mars. But Dr. Naderi’s impact extended far beyond the reaches of space. In the Iranian-American community, he was a shining light, a beacon of hope and inspiration. As a mentor and advocate, he illuminated the path for countless of us.

Born in the ancient city of Shiraz, Dr. Naderi embarked on a remarkable journey marked by his unwavering dedication to education and knowledge.

With degrees in electrical engineering from Iowa State University and the University of Southern California, Dr. Naderi honed his skills and prepared himself for an adventurous life. At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he took on the role of Director for Solar System Exploration, overseeing space robotic missions to distant corners of our cosmic neighborhood. From the Origin program, where he sought Earth-like planets, to managing the Mars Program and the historic landing of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, his contributions were nothing short of extraordinary.

The accolades bestowed upon Dr. Naderi throughout his life were a testament to his brilliance. The Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal, the Technology Hall of Fame Medal, and the Distinguished Service Medal from NASA stood as symbols of his remarkable achievements.

Beyond his scientific prowess, Dr. Naderi possessed a gift for captivating hearts and minds. He graced countless stages as a keynote and motivational speaker, sharing his wisdom and inspiring others to reach for the stars. Dr. Naderi’s unwavering support for the Iranian-American diaspora, exemplified by his active engagement with the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), breathed life into muted voices that had been silenced for far too long.

Following the displacement of millions of Iranians from their ancestral land during the Islamic Revolution of Iran in February 1979, Dr. Naderi dedicated his life in the United States to amplifying the voices of Iranian-Americans, leaving no stone unturned in his pursuit to uplift our community.

October 2013, panel on The Persian Square and Iranian-American contributions at NPR West in Culver City, CA, led by journalist Davar Ardalan featuring Dr. Firouz Naderi, Goli Ameri and Pejman Nozad.

The history of Iranian-Americans in the United States stretches far beyond what may initially seem apparent. Our roots trace back to moments like Colonel James Kilbourne’s naming of Bucyrus, Ohio in honor of Cyrus the Great in 1822 when he served as a surveyor.

In 2013, Dr. Naderi advised me on my digital book, The Persian Square, a multi-touch story of the Iranian-American immigrant experience on Apple Books. Drawing on everything from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s odes to his beloved Persian poets to Pierre Omidyar’s founding of eBay, The Persian Square culls together stunning images and sharp storytelling, weaving a modern, multimedia tapestry of Iranian American history over the centuries.

The Persian Square includes historic documents, handwritten letters, archival photos from Iran and over 30 media files including, music, videos and several audio recordings from 1912, 1915, and 1924 used with permission from Sony Music. The book contained links to NPR stories from 1995–2012 with permission from NPR.

Margaret Low Smith, NPR’s Senior Vice-President for News introduced Davar Ardalan and the panel discussion.

Dr. Naderi provided valuable feedback after thoroughly reviewing the book multiple times. For over a century, Iranian Americans have infused vitality into cities like Los Angeles, leaving an indelible mark. Our vibrant traditions, from the enchanting poetry of Rumi to the tantalizing aroma of kabobs, have seamlessly integrated into mainstream American culture.

Today, Iranian Americans are embracing their civic voice with unwavering passion. Across generations, we are at the forefront of technology, business, medicine, law, journalism, and local politics, shaping communities from Silicon Valley to America’s heartland, Wall Street, and Washington, D.C. Our impact resonates in every corner of the nation. Dr. Naderi was always encouraging us to understand and document our Iranian-American history and contributions.

(L-R) Bita Milanian, Telecom Executive and Community Organizer; Dr. Firouz Naderi; Goli Ameri, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs; journalist Davar Ardalan; VC Pejman Nozad; and former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad.

In October 2013, Dr. Naderi joined an NPR panel discussion at NPR West in Culver City, California together with former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Goli Ameri, and Silicon Valley VC Pejman Nozad. Dr. Naderi’s conviction in the transformative potential of storytelling finds its origins in the rich and imaginative heritage of Iranian culture.

In 2014, Dr. Naderi nominated me for the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, recognizing my professional journey as a long-time journalist at NPR and my contributions to our Iranian-American community by amplifying our contributions and cultural heritage. Years prior, he had received this recognition as well. He always uplifted others, inspiring us to work hard and embrace our heritage.

In February 2017, Dr. Firouz Naderi and space explorer Anousheh Ansari stood on the prestigious Oscar stage, accepting the award for best foreign language film on behalf of director Asghar Farhadi. Farhadi’s powerful boycott of the ceremony served as a protest against then President Trump’s restrictive immigration and refugee ban, targeting travelers from several countries, including Iran. Naderi, driven by his unwavering opposition to the immigration order, joined the Academy Awards, drawing attention to its impact on students. Although the ban is currently suspended, the journey remains arduous for some travelers at US borders.

Academy Awards in 2017, Dr. Firouz Naderi and Space Explorer Anousheh Ansari accepting the award for best foreign language film on behalf of director Asghar Farhadi. As a young girl in Tehran, Anousheh Ansari often gazed at the night sky and dreamed of being a scientist. In 2006, the Texas entrepreneur self-funded her $20 million eight-day expedition aboard the International Space Station. Today she is the CEO of XPrize.

With immense passion, Naderi emphasized the extraordinary value of Iranian students from renowned technical universities, sought after by esteemed institutions like Stanford and MIT. He envisioned two remarkable outcomes when these students come to the United States: they can earn their Ph.D.s, enhancing the American workforce, or they can return to Iran, bringing back a profound empathy for America. Naderi raised a poignant question, challenging the barriers preventing these bright minds from pursuing education and expanding their knowledge.

October 19, 2019, the first regional event for PAAIA’s Civic Engagement Initiative brought together Iranian Americans to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to learn about how to enact change in the community. (L-R) journalist Davar Ardalan, Dr. Firouz Naderi, Samira Jafari, Executive Editor at CNN, Maryam Banikarim, formerly Chief Marketing Officer at Hyatt and NBC Universal, and Senior Policy Advisor Samira Jali.

In 2019, I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion with Dr. Naderi at Georgia Tech titled “Our Strength is our Story” during a PAAIA civic engagement event. Dr. Naderi, graced the panel alongside Maryam Banikarim, formerly Chief Marketing Officer at Hyatt and NBC Universal, Samira Jafari, Executive Editor at CNN, and Senior Policy Advisor Samira Jali. It was an unforgettable experience, and the last time I saw Dr. Naderi.

During that momentous gathering, Dr. Naderi fervently emphasized the imperative for Iranian-Americans to discover their unified voice. Our dialogue delved into the profound significance of storytelling and active participation in society, recognizing the cultural tapestry of Iranians, deeply rooted in expression, creativity, and narrative.

Together, we explored how our diverse experiences empower us to capture, curate, and cultivate stories, employing data-driven, collaborative storytelling models and the transformative potential of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to effectively share our narratives. Guided by Dr. Naderi’s visionary leadership, we delved into adapting and harnessing the strengths of modern communication technologies, ultimately translating our endeavors into impactful civic engagement.

Dr. Naderi also had the chance to meet my son, Aman Ardalan, who shared his passion for civic service, having worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign. After hearing Aman’s short story, Dr. Naderi said “Aman, like mother, like son” — a moment that filled my heart with immense pride.

Dr. Firouz Naderi, a true titan in the fields of science, innovation, space exploration, and a cherished advocate for Persian heritage, will forever remain an inspiration to us all.

In a fitting tribute to Dr. Naderi, it is remarkable that I wrote this story with the assistance of AI, a testament to his lifelong pursuit of cutting-edge innovation. Just as he pushed the boundaries of space exploration and scientific advancement, his legacy continues to inspire us to embrace new technologies and push the limits of human potential. Dr. Naderi, your impact and spirit of innovation will forever resonate within us.

And now, amidst the countless stars that gleam, I spot one and deem it yours, in eternal dream. A beacon of inspiration, radiant and bold, Dr. Firouz Naderi, forever to behold.

Shining brightly in the cosmic expanse, Your name, forever enshrined, shall dance. A symbol of your spirit, forever aglow, Dr. Firouz Naderi, a celestial show.

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Davar Ardalan

Founder TulipAI. National Geographic, NPR News, SecondMuse, White House PIF Alum.