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The legacy of 'Ingenuity,' NASA's helicopter on Mars

NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Last month, the Ingenuity ended its mission as the first aircraft to make an extraterrestrial flight.

After nearly three years on Mars, what did it teach us?

Today, On Point: The legacy of ‘Ingenuity,’ NASA’s helicopter on Mars.

Guests

Teddy Tzanetos, project manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter

Havard Grip, chief pilot of the Ingenuity. He led the development of its aerodynamics and flight control system.

Also Featured

MiMi Aung, director of technical program management for Amazon’s Project Kuiper. Former project manager of the Ingenuity.

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: MiMi Aung couldn’t fall asleep.

MIMI AUNG: I probably tried to go to bed. I can’t remember what time I went to bed. It might have been close to 9.

CHAKRABARTI: And for all MiMi cared, the dark space between her and her bedroom clock might as well have been just as far as where her mind was actually whirring … 140 million miles away.

AUNG: I have to share with you. I don’t know if I’ve shared publicly like this. I actually got quite emotional the night before when I got to prepare for the portion of if it didn’t land properly.

CHAKRABARTI: “It” was a tiny vehicle, less than 4 pounds, and the where was on Mars.

AUNG: This is the first time it left our planet, right? So, yeah, definitely, it’s a first of a kind mission. There’s no manual prewritten. My name is MiMi Aung. I’m the former project manager for Ingenuity Mars helicopter.

CHAKRABARTI: Time ticked by slowly.

AUNG: I got quite emotional because I ended up walking through all our journey and what each success was. When we did our first proof of concept flight to when we really achieved the mass, and then we were put onto the rover, which was like incredible, right? Like our dream come true. Like, we were going to Mars, right? And then now we’re at Mars and doing that and how proud we were.

CHAKRABARTI: But the team still didn’t know if the little ‘copter could actually fly on Mars. This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. The night of April 18, 2021 edged toward the first minute of April 19, when suddenly, MiMi’s phone lit up.

AUNG:  And I think I remember around midnight, Bob Balaram texted me.

CHAKRABARTI: MiMi was the head of NASA’s Ingenuity team. Balaram was the team’s Chief Engineer.

AUNG: And I said, “Hey, Ingenuity should have flown by now.” And because there was a time lapse and now it was a few hours later that the telemetry was going to come back down. But around that time he texted me. He’s like, “Yep, it should have flown by now.” And I remember that text.

And then of course, then you drive in the dark, and you get there, you’re seeing people you haven’t seen for a long time. It was really exciting. We were extremely conservative about COVID, so we hadn’t seen each other. And in fact, it was the first time a lot of us had been back in the same room. So there was a lot of emotion charged there. But I still — after all the excitement then, I think there was, it was very somber. It was pretty much like thinking and just kind of pacing, not so anxiously at that point, but still pacing and thinking about all the outcomes.

And then, the time came when the telemetry was going to come down.

CONTROL ROOM 1: This is downlink. Data products are prepared to be in. We will begin processing shortly.

AUNG: And then I think I was, uh, Garrick next to me. I started moving around like a little bit and he started to see some telemetry and I’m like, you know, trying to read his body language and everything.

CONTROL ROOM 1: This is downlink, we have pulled in data products from Mars 2020. Confirming that we have helicopter data products, helicopter telemetry, helicopter events.

CONTROL ROOM 2: Rotor motors appear healthy, swatch plate servos appear healthy, overall actuators appear healthy.

FLIGHT CONTROL: This flight control confirming that we have EVRs from Ingenuity. Ingenuity’s reporting having performed spin up, take off, climb, hover, descent, landing, touchdown and spin down.

AUNG: And then for me, the most exciting moment where I allowed myself to accept it, more than the video of the first flight that came down from Perseverance’s camera, when I saw the altimeter plot.

FLIGHT CONTROL: Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight, (shouts, applause) the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet.

AUNG: Because you knew right when it was supposed to go up, you knew what the altitude should be, you know what the duration, and then you’re looking at the jiggles like, oh, it’s a really smooth glide. And then came back down perfectly. And I think that’s when I say I can jump, I can actually celebrate.

That’s it, yeah. (LAUGHS) That’s where the geeky side comes out. I had to see that plot. I can’t celebrate on just, it went up and it’s flying, yeah. (LAUGHS).

AUNG IN MISSION CONTROL: We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet. (CHEER)

AUNG: Another thing that I haven’t really spoken about. The adrenaline rush, it’s really intense. So I remember after all the excitement, the room was empty, walking from one building to the other, I got really sick. And somebody says, “Oh, it’s the adrenaline crash.”

It was an intense journey, right? Because every time, if we didn’t demonstrate lift, we probably wouldn’t have gone to the next step. If we didn’t fly it, people might have said, well, another time. Right? So every step, our team, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to celebrate. And especially, Bob and I were not as bad, but like Havard Grip and Teddy Tzanetos and a lot of the team members, these are like, Let’s not, we’re not going to celebrate until the real thing, right? So it really was the first, I think it was feeling permission, like to actually celebrate.

That teaming, the extraordinary, high engineering, highly technical. Thinking together and working our way out of several places that we were stumped on and the bond that we formed. I have to say, that’s, when I think back, it reinforces my belief that you can make really difficult things happen. And we did that. Our team was really connected that way because we never had to filter ourselves, because it was so hard to do that we had the freedom. So I really, truly believe in teamwork, and hard work and being very technical and objective to make things happen.

I’ve said before that the sky is not the limit, meaning really, you can really get things done.

And I look at Ingenuity and the fact that now we don’t have to wonder if it is possible to have missions that fly at Mars and to start using the aerial dimension for space exploration. That is a great thing to add to the arsenal of deep space exploration. But I think I look at this mission more personally. For me, it was ultimate reward to be in such a crazy team going for crazy thing. But being really razor focused together. It doesn’t come all the time. These are like magical team experience and that’s what I remember the most. And then Ingenuity rewarded us all like with just this unexpected, like beyond our wildest dream, performance.

CHAKRABARTI: MiMi Aung. She was the project manager of NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter. Now beginning in April 19th, 2021, from that first success, Ingenuity’s original mission was supposed to be a mere five flights, total little hops to prove powered flight was possible on Mars. The copter ended up making 72 flights.

The mission was intended to be just one month long, but Ingenuity kept going for almost three years, covering more than 11 miles of the Martian surface. But on January 18th of this year on its 72nd flight, Ingenuity damaged at least one rotor blade on touchdown. And NASA ended the copter’s mission a short while later, but not without making this thrilling observation.

Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences division, said quote, “Ingenuity absolutely shattered our paradigm of exploration.” Or, as you heard MiMi Aung put it a little bit earlier, humanity can still make difficult things happen. So what can the rest of us learn from the little copter that could?

Joining us now is Teddy Tzanetos. He served as the project manager for Ingenuity by the end of its mission. Teddy, welcome to On Point.

TEDDY TZANETOS: Hello Meghna. Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And also with us today is Havard Grip. He served as the chief pilot of Ingenuity and led the development of its aerodynamics and flight control system.

Havard, welcome to you as well.

HAVARD GRIP: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And first of all, let me just congratulate both of you and everybody that has been involved with the Ingenuity Project. It really is an almost unimaginably awesome milestone in human exploration. So I just wanted to say that first and foremost. But Teddy, how are you feeling now?

It must be more than a little bit bittersweet that Ingenuity has finally so many years later ended its mission.

TZANETOS: Yes. I would say for the first 24 hours after we made the determination, we’ve finally reached the end. It was a little bittersweet. But since then we’re on the Martian equivalent of cloud nine.

It’s really been a wonderful last couple of days. The team is still in communication with Ingenuity. She’s still alive. We have this expression within the team, WENDY, which stands for We’re not dead yet. And we’ve had a great time collecting as much information as we can to try and piece together exactly what happened in that last flight.

But it’s also provided the team with an opportunity to get some perspective and really appreciate how lucky we’ve all been to be a part of Ingenuity and what a marvelous journey this little aircraft has actually had.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I think, was it just yesterday that NASA released some pictures of where Ingenuity is right now, resting on a Martian dune somewhere?

TZANETOS: Correct. We got some imagery from the Perseverance Rover. Our team works very closely with the rover team. And we’ve been planning, as soon as the rover got around a hill, to take the best image we can from an advantage point of Ingenuity’s resting spot and area, our internal helicopter teams calling Valinor Hills.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, now Havard. You’re of course the person who flew Ingenuity around as the chief pilot. We’ll talk a little bit later about how exactly that happens. But same question to you. Is it bittersweet? Does it almost, do I dare ask if it almost feels like losing a member of your family after being so intimately involved with the project for so long?

GRIP: For me I have to say it’s mostly sweet yeah, a little bit bitter. But the mission had to end one way or another, and in a way, I think it ended the way it should have. With Ingenuity still pushing the limits. That’s how it went out and that’s how it should have gone out.

And I look back at this as just a huge success. And in terms of losing a member of your family, For me, I admit, I don’t attach the personality to Ingenuity. To me it’s more about the team, the team that built Ingenuity. That’s what I look back on, the experiences that we’ve had together, being in the trenches together and making this happen.

That’s what I look back at, that, a little bit of sentimentality.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know what, Havard, I really appreciate what you’re saying. Because I think right now there’s lesson No. 1 about what we can learn about how to do big things. Don’t romanticize the project, it’s the people that you care about. And then don’t romanticize the actual work. Because it’s going to be hard, but it’s worth it.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.