Members of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter team in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory react to data showing that the helicopter completed its first flight on April 19. JPL-Caltech/NASA
The dream of Ingenuity began in the 1990s when Jet Propulsion Laboratory robotics technologist Bob Balaram heard Ilan Kroo, a Stanford University professor of aeronautics and astronautics, speak at a conference about a “mesicopter,” or a miniature airborne vehicle for Earth.
Balaram could imagine it on Mars.
He proposed one for NASA during a call for submissions, but it wasn’t selected for funding. The Mars helicopter would sit on the shelf for 15 years as Balaram worked on other Mars missions.
Ingenuity’s time came in 2013 when Charles Elachi, director of JPL at the time, attended a presentation on drones and helicopters and returned to the lab asking if one could fly on Mars. Balaram retrieved his original proposal and developed the first conceptual design.
It was a long seven years of design, building and testing, with a technical crisis or challenge arising every week.The rigorous work put in to Ingenuity’s design and testing is what made the helicopter possible.
The team pulled together people from specific disciplines, but they all thought outside of the box to help each other work on the components of the helicopter.
“On behalf of all of us at NASA Science, I just wanted to say how proud we are of you and how we recognize how important you are, for this particular success,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“The story of this team is a compelling one,” he added.
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