Last month, Ingenuity completed its mission as the first aircraft to fly beyond Earth.
After nearly three years on Mars, what has it taught us?
today, On point: The legacy of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.
Teddy Tzanetos, Project Manager, Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
harvard grip, Chief Pilot of the Ingenuity. He led the development of aerodynamics and flight control systems.
Mimi Aoun, Director of Technical Program Management for Amazon’s Project Kuiper. Former project manager at Ingenuity.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Mimi Aoun couldn’t sleep.
Mimi Aoun: I guess I was trying to sleep. I can’t remember what time I went to bed. It may have been close to 9 o’clock.
Chakrabarti: And no matter how much Mimi cared, the dark space between her and her bedroom clock might actually be as far away as where her mind was swirling…1 It was 40 million miles away.
Aoun: I have to share it with you all. I don’t know if I’ve shared it publicly like this. Actually, the night before, I was getting pretty emotional as I was preparing in case I didn’t land well.
Chakrabarti: “It” was a small vehicle weighing less than 4 pounds and located on Mars.
Aoun: This is your first time leaving Earth, right? Yes, this is definitely your first mission. There are no pre-written manuals. My name is Mimi Aoun. I am a former project manager for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter.
Chakrabarti: Time passed slowly.
Aoun: I ended up getting pretty emotional because I ended up walking through all of our journeys and what our individual successes were. It was incredible to go from doing the first proof-of-concept flight to actually achieving mass and then being put on board the spacecraft, right? It was like a dream come true for us. Like, we were going to go to Mars, right? And now we’re doing it on Mars, and how proud we must have been.
Chakrabarti: But the team still didn’t know whether this tiny helicopter could actually fly to Mars. This is on point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. As the night of April 18, 2021 approached the first minute of April 19, MiMi’s cell phone suddenly lit up.
AUN: And I think I remember getting an email from Bob Balaram around midnight.
Chakrabarti: MiMi was the head of NASA’s Ingenuity team. Balaram was the team’s chief engineer.
Aoun: So I said, “Hey, Ingenuity should be flying by now,” and there was a time-lapse, because the telemetry came back a few hours later. But around that time, he sent me an email. He says, “Oh, it should be flying by now.” And I remember that text.
And of course, driving in the dark allows you to meet people you haven’t seen for a long time when you get there. I was really excited. We had never met because we were very conservative about COVID-19. And in fact, this was the first time many of us were back in the same room. So there was a lot of emotion put into it. However, although I still felt the excitement of that time, I still felt very depressed. It was like thinking and pacing and I wasn’t really worried at that point, but I was still pacing and thinking about all the consequences.
And it’s time for telemetry to go down.
Control Room 1: This is the downlink. Your data product is ready. Processing will begin shortly.
Aoun: And I, uh, I think Garrick was next to me. I started moving a little bit and he started looking at the telemetry. And I’m like trying to read his body language and everything.
Control Room 1: This is the downlink. Ingested data products from Mars 2020. We’re making sure we have helicopter data products, helicopter telemetry, and helicopter events.
Control Room 2: The rotor motor looks OK, the sample plate servo looks OK, and the entire actuator looks OK.
Flight Control: This flight control confirms that you own Ingenuity’s EVR. Ingenuity reports performed spin-up, take-off, climb, hover, descent, landing, touchdown, and spin-down.
Aoun: And for me, the most exciting moment when I was able to accept that, more than the video of the first flight that came from Perseverance’s camera, was when I saw the altimeter plot.
Flight Controls: Altimeter data confirms that Ingenuity has performed its first flight, the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet (screams, applause).
Aoun: Because we knew when it was going to rise, what the altitude should be, and how long it should last. Then, when I saw the sway, I thought, Wow, it’s really gliding smoothly. And it returned perfectly. And I think that’s when I say I can jump and I can actually celebrate.
That’s right, that’s right. (Laughs) That’s where my otaku side comes out. I had to see that plot. You can’t just celebrate, it’s up and flying, yeah. (lol).
Mission Control Officer Aoun: We can now say that we have flown rotorcraft on another planet. (cheers)
Aoun: There is another thing that we haven’t talked about much. The adrenaline rush is really intense. So, after getting excited, I remember feeling really sick when no one was in the room and I wandered from one building to another. And someone says, “Oh, it’s an adrenaline crash.”
It was a tough journey. Because if I hadn’t demonstrated the lift every time, I probably wouldn’t have made it to the next step. If we hadn’t flown it, people might have said, “Maybe another time.” right? So our team does not allow ourselves to celebrate every step. And specifically, Bob and I weren’t too bad, but like Harvard Grip and Teddy Tzanetos and a lot of the rest of the team, they were like, ‘Let’s stop, we’re not going to celebrate until the show, right? “It was that kind of feeling. So I think that was really the first time I felt like I had permission to actually celebrate.
Its teamwork, extraordinary, advanced engineering, advanced technology. Together we figured out how to get out of some of the places we stumbled and the bonds we made. Looking back, I have to say that it has strengthened my belief that even really difficult things can be achieved. And we did it. Our team really connected like that. Because we had freedom because we didn’t have to filter ourselves and that was very difficult. So I really believe in teamwork, hard work, and being very technical and objective in making things happen.
I’ve said before that the sky’s the limit. That means you can really get things done.
And I look to Ingenuity and the fact that we don’t have to think about whether a mission to fly to Mars is possible, whether it’s possible to start using the airborne dimension for space exploration. This is a great addition to your deep space exploration arsenal. But I think I look at this mission more personally. For me, being part of a crazy team that aims to do crazy things was the ultimate reward. But being together really helps me concentrate. It doesn’t always come. These were magical team experiences and that’s what I remember most. And Ingenuity rewarded us all with this unexpected, dream-beyond performance.
Chakrabarti: Mimi Aoun. She was her manager for NASA’s Ingenuity and Mars Helicopter projects. Starting April 19, 2021, and since its initial success, Ingenuity’s original mission has been to prove that powered flight on Mars is possible, with just her five flights, a total of just It was supposed to be the number of hops. The helicopter ultimately made 72 flights.
Although the mission was scheduled to last just one month, Ingenuity lasted almost three years and covered more than 11 miles of Mars’ surface. However, on its 72nd flight on January 18 of this year, Ingenuity damaged at least one rotor blade upon touchdown. And while NASA ended the helicopter’s mission some time later, it couldn’t help but make this thrilling observation.
Lori Glaze, “Ingenuity has completely shattered our exploration paradigm,” said the head of NASA’s planetary science division. Or, as I heard Mimi Aoun say earlier, humanity can still make difficult events happen. So what can the rest of us learn from this little helicopter?
Our newest addition is Teddy Tzanetos. He served as Ingenuity’s project manager until the end of Ingenuity’s mission. Teddy, welcome to On Point.
Teddy Tsanetos: Hello, Meghna. Thank you for calling me.
Chakrabarti: And today we’re joined by Hubbard Grip. He served as Ingenuity’s chief pilot and led the development of aerodynamics and flight control systems.
Welcome Mr. Hubbard.
Hubbard Grip: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.
Chakrabarti: And first of all, congratulations to you and everyone involved in the Ingenuity project. This truly is an almost unimaginable milestone in human exploration. That’s why I wanted to say that first. But Teddy, how are you feeling now?
It must be more than a little bittersweet that Ingenuity has finally completed its mission after so many years.
Tzanetos: Yes. In his first 24 hours since making the decision, I can finally say we’ve reached the end. It was a little bittersweet. But since then, we’ve been on cloud nine, the equivalent of Mars.
The last few days have been truly amazing. The team is still in contact with Ingenuity. she is still alive. There’s an expression within the team: “WENDY,” which stands for “We’re not dead yet.” And we spent a lot of time gathering as much information as we could to piece together exactly what happened on that last flight.
But it’s also an opportunity for the team to get some perspective and really understand how lucky we all are to be a part of Ingenuity, and what an incredible journey this little plane has actually been on. I did.
Chakrabarti: Well, I believe it was only yesterday that NASA released a photo of where Ingenuity is now, resting somewhere in the sand dunes of Mars?
Tsanetos: Yes. Image obtained from Perseverance rover. Our team works very closely with the rover team. And as soon as the spacecraft bypasses the hills, an in-house helicopter team plans to call into the Valley Hills to capture the best possible images from Ingenuity’s resting place and vantage points in the area. I’ve been doing it.
Chakrabarti: Now, Hubbard. Of course you are the one who flew Ingenuity as chief pilot. We’ll explain a little later how exactly that happens. But same question for you. Is it bittersweet? Having been so closely involved in this project for so long, it almost feels like losing a family member, dare I ask?
Grip: I would have to say it’s mostly sweet and a little bitter for me. But this mission had to end somehow, and in some ways I think it ended the way it should have. Ingenuity is still pushing the envelope. That’s how it came out, and that’s how it should have been.
And I look back on it as a huge success. And when it comes to losing a family member, I’ll admit that, for me, ingenuity doesn’t equal individuality. For me, it’s more about the team, the team that built Ingenuity. That’s the experience that I look back on, that we went through together, that we went into the trenches together and made this happen.
That’s what I’m looking back on, it’s a little bit sentimental.
Chakrabarti: Yes. Mr. Hubbard, I really appreciate what you’re saying. Because for now, I think lesson number one is about what we can learn about how to accomplish big things. Don’t glamorize your project. What you care about is people. And don’t glorify the actual work. Because even though it’s going to be hard, it’s worth it.