March 1, 2024

The legacy of ‘Ingenuity’, NASA’s helicopter on Mars

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

After almost three years on Mars, what has it taught us?

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


Teddy Tzanetos, project manager for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Harvard grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot. 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 at Ingenuity.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: MiMi Aung couldn’t sleep.

MIMI AUNG: I probably tried to go to bed. I don’t remember what time I went to bed. Maybe it was close to 9am.

CHAKRABARTI: And as much as MiMi cared, the dark space between her and the bedroom clock could very well be as far away as where her mind was actually whirring… 140 million miles away.

AUNG: I have to share it with you. I don’t know if I’ve ever shared it publicly like that. I actually got quite emotional the night before when I prepared for the part that would happen if he didn’t land correctly.

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

AUNG: This is your first time leaving our planet, right? So, yes, it is definitely an unprecedented mission. There is no pre-written manual. My name is MiMi Aung. I’m the former project manager for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter.

CHAKRABARTI: Time passed slowly.

AUNG: I was quite emotional because I ended up going over our entire journey and what each success was. When we did our first proof-of-concept flight, when we actually reached mass, and then we were put into the rover, which was amazing, right? Like our dream coming true. Like, we were going to Mars, right? And now we are on Mars doing it and how proud we were.

CHAKRABARTI: But the team still didn’t know whether the little helicopter could actually fly on Mars. This is the right point. My name is Meghna Chakrabarti. The night of April 18, 2021 was approaching 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 chief engineer of the team.

AUNG: And I said, “Hey, Ingenuity should have flown by now.” And because there was a lapse of time and now only a few hours later the telemetry would start working again. But at that time he sent me a message. He’s like, “Yeah, it should have flown by now.” And I remember this text.

And then, of course, you drive in the dark and get there, seeing people you haven’t seen in a long time. It was really exciting. We were extremely conservative about COVID, so we didn’t see each other. And actually, it was the first time many of us were back in the same room. So there was a lot of emotion there. But I still – after all the excitement, I think there was, it was very dark. It was kind of like thinking and pacing, not as anxious at that point, but still pacing and thinking about all the outcomes.

And then came the time when telemetry would go down.

CONTROL ROOM 1: This is the downlink. Data products are ready to be received. We will begin processing soon.

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

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

CONTROL ROOM 2: The rotor motors appear healthy, the sample board servos appear healthy, the actuators in general appear healthy.

FLIGHT CONTROL: This flight control confirms that we have Ingenuity EVRs. Ingenuity reports having performed spin up, takeoff, climb, hover, descent, landing, landing and spin down.

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

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

AUNG: Because you knew exactly when you should climb, you knew what the altitude should be, you know how long it should be, and then you’re looking at the tremors as, oh, it’s a very smooth slide. And then it came back perfectly. And I think that’s when I say I can jump, I can really celebrate.

That’s it, yes. (LAUGHTER) That’s where the geek side comes out. I had to see this plot. I can’t celebrate, he’s gone up and he’s flying, yes. (LAUGHTER).

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

AUNG: Another thing I haven’t really talked about. The adrenaline is very intense. Then I remember that after all the excitement, the room was empty, walking from one building to another, I felt really sick. And someone says: “Ah, it’s the adrenaline crash.”

It was an intense journey, right? Because every time, if we didn’t demonstrate support, we probably wouldn’t have taken the next step. If we didn’t fly, people might have said, well, another time. Right? So at every step, our team, we wouldn’t allow ourselves to celebrate. And especially, Bob and I weren’t that bad, but like Havard Grip and Teddy Tzanetos and a lot of the team, they’re like, let’s not, let’s not celebrate until the real thing, right? So it was really the first, I think it was a feeling of permission, of really celebrating.

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

I’ve said before that the sky is not the limit, which means you can actually get things done.
And I look at Ingenuity and the fact that now we don’t need to ask ourselves if it’s possible to have missions that fly to Mars and start using the aerial dimension for space exploration. This is great to add to the deep space exploration arsenal. But I think I look at this mission more personally. For me, it was the biggest reward to be on such a crazy team looking for crazy things. But being really focused together. This doesn’t happen all the time. They’re like magical team experiences and that’s what I remember most. And then Ingenuity rewarded us all with this unexpected performance beyond our wildest dreams.

CHAKRABARTI: MiMi Aung. She was the project manager for NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter. Now, starting April 19, 2021, from that first success, Ingenuity’s original mission was supposed to be just five flights, short hops total to prove that powered flight was possible on Mars. The helicopter ended up making 72 flights.

The mission was only supposed to last a month, but Ingenuity continued for nearly three years, covering more than 18 kilometers of the Martian surface. But on January 18 of this year, on its 72nd flight, Ingenuity damaged at least one rotor blade upon landing. And NASA ended the helicopter’s mission shortly after, but not without making this exciting observation.

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

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

TEDDY TZANETOS: Hi Meghna. Thanks for receiving me.

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

Harvard, welcome too.

HAVARD GRIP: Hello. Thank you very much for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: And first of all, let me congratulate both of you and everyone who was involved in the Ingenuity Project. It truly is an almost unimaginably impressive milestone in human exploration. So I just wanted to say that first and foremost. But Teddy, how are you feeling right now?

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

TZANETOS: Yes. I would say within the first 24 hours of making the decision, we finally reached the end. It was a little bittersweet. But since then we’ve been on the Martian equivalent of cloud nine.

The last few days have been truly wonderful. The team is still in communication with Ingenuity. She’s still alive. We have this expression within the team, WENDY, which means We’re not dead yet. And we had a lot of fun collecting as much information as we could to try and figure out exactly what happened on that last flight.

But it also gave the team an opportunity to get some perspective and really appreciate how lucky we all were to be a part of Ingenuity and what a wonderful journey this little aircraft really has had.

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

TZANETOS: Correct. We got some images from the Perseverance Rover. Our team works closely with the rover team. And we’re planning, as soon as the rover rounds a hill, to take the best possible image from a vantage point of the Ingenuity site and rest area, our internal helicopter teams calling Valinor Hills.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, now Havard. Of course you are the person who flew Ingenuity as chief pilot. We’ll talk a little later about how exactly this happens. But the same question for you. Is it bittersweet? It’s almost, dare I ask if it’s almost 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, yes, a little bitter. But the mission had to end one way or another, and in some ways, I think it ended as it should. With Ingenuity still pushing the limits. That’s how it happened and that’s how it should have happened.

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

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

CHAKRABARTI: Yes. You know what, Havard, I really appreciate what you’re saying. Because I think now there’s lesson No. 1 about what we can learn about how to do great things. Don’t romanticize the project, it’s the people you like. And then don’t romanticize the work itself. Because it will be difficult, but it’s worth it.

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