Before Ingenuity landed on Mars, scientists almost managed to kill it

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This is the last photo Perseverance took of Ingenuity before moving away from its final resting place.
Enlarge / This is the last photo Perseverance took of Ingenuity before moving away from its final resting place.

NASA/Simeon Schmauss

MiMi Aung could barely contain her excitement as she drove down Oak Grove Drive, the tree-lined street that leads to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Aung had spent his formative years in Burma and Malaysia, two countries without a space program. A career in aerospace seemed out of reach for him. Yet here she was, at 22 years old, having a job interview to possibly work at the Deep Space Network. Aung she dreamed of helping NASA intercept and amplify weak signals sent to Earth from humanity’s most distant spacecraft, including Voyager.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Aung said.

That day in 1990, this math-loving engineer met with potential managers and visited the laboratory facilities. I felt at home immediately. An energetic and enthusiastic person by nature, Aung spoke quickly and asked a million questions. “You’re like a kid in a candy store,” one of the managers commented. She was. Aung couldn’t help it. More than anywhere else in the world, this is where she wanted to be.

She got the job. Over the next quarter century, Aung would work on Deep Space Network and several other programs. Eventually, she became a manager and oversaw the guidance, navigation and control systems that help fly the spacecraft.

In 2014, they gave him a choice. Aung could remain as manager—a prominent position in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) hierarchy—or take charge of a fledgling project to develop a small helicopter that could one day fly on Mars.

Aung took the leap. She and a small team dove into the technical details of a nearly impossible engineering challenge due to the exceptionally thin air on the red planet. But even as the team advanced, a formidable set of adversaries lined up against the program that was trying to get on the market. Perseverance rover to Mars in 2020.

Time and time again, at JPL, on the upper floors of the NASA headquarters building in Washington, DC, and in the halls of Congress, these critics tried to kill Ingenuity. And on multiple occasions they almost succeeded.

This is the inside story of how Aung and some Mars flight champions ultimately prevailed.

The origin of ingenuity

The mad scientists at JPL had long dreamed of flying to Mars. An engineer named Bob Balaram began considering the idea in the 1990s, and he and a small team were given some money to put the concept to paper. But before they could start building anything, the funds ran out. The project was frozen for more than a decade.

It was given new life in 2013, when JPL’s former director, a Lebanese-born scientist and engineer named Charles Elachi, was touring the guidance and navigation division. The group had around 1,000 employees, one of whom, Aung, was its deputy director. She was guiding Elachi and a senior lab engineer, René Fredat, around. After visiting the drone lab, they boarded a small bus to travel to the next stop.

“Why don’t drones or helicopters fly on Mars?” Elachi asked Fredat.

Neither he nor Aung had a good answer. So Elachi provided some seed funding to Balaram and a few others to update their calculations from the 1990s and determine whether the miniaturization revolution fueled by cell phone technology would allow flight on Mars, where a vehicle had to be Extremely light but capable of turning. its blades at thousands of revolutions per minute, possible. Aung was asked to support the project as a side job.

Charles Elachi was director of JPL for a decade and a half.
Enlarge / Charles Elachi was director of JPL for a decade and a half.

Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images

In the end, it took longer and longer. In September 2014, Aung had to decide whether to remain in the leadership position of a large division or take on the helicopter project. Even then, bad political winds were swirling around the idea, which would take away precious space in the Perseverance scientific experiment rover.

“In retrospect, I realize how important it was to resign,” he said of the senior management position at JPL. “But at the time I didn’t think twice. I felt like I had something to give.”

It was his big opportunity, so he took advantage of it.

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