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

The inside story of how the Mars helicopter Ingenuity faced numerous challenges and almost got canceled.


The origin of Ingenuity

The idea of flying on Mars had been a dream for the scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for a long time. In the 1990s, engineer Bob Balaram started exploring the concept, but the project was put on hold due to lack of funding. It wasn't until 2013, during a tour of JPL's guidance and navigation division, that the idea gained new life.

The director of JPL at the time, Charles Elachi, questioned why drones or helicopters weren't being flown on Mars. This led to some seed funding being provided to Balaram and his team to reevaluate the feasibility of flying on Mars. MiMi Aung, the deputy manager of the division, was asked to support the project as a side job.

As time went on, Aung became more and more involved in the project. In 2014, she faced a difficult decision—to remain in her managerial role or take on the helicopter project. Despite the political challenges and the space it would take away from scientific experiments on the Perseverance rover, Aung decided to take the leap and focus on the helicopter project.

The challenges and adversaries

Once Aung and her team fully committed to the helicopter project, they faced numerous challenges. One of the biggest hurdles was designing a helicopter that could fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars, where the vehicle had to be lightweight yet capable of rotating its blades at high speeds.

However, the challenges didn't end there. Aung and her team also had to overcome critics and adversaries who attempted to kill the Ingenuity project. These opponents were present at JPL, in NASA's headquarters building, and even in Congress. Despite the opposition, Aung and a few champions of the project persevered and ultimately prevailed.

A triumphant success

Despite the many obstacles faced by Aung and her team, Ingenuity finally made its way to Mars and successfully completed its historic flights. The Mars 2020 science team initially wasn't interested in the helicopter, but Aung's determination and the team's hard work paid off.

MiMi Aung, a woman who grew up in countries without a space program, managed to fulfill her dream of working in aerospace and making history on Mars. The story of Ingenuity's journey from almost being canceled to becoming a triumph is a testament to the power of perseverance and innovation.