Before booking that ticket to Mars, you might want to speak first with La Cañada Flintridge resident MiMi Aung, NASA’s JPL project manager for the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which landed last week on the red planet with the agency’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover, a historical feat.
Aung took center stage before the world with her team as manager of the project for the helicopter, which is attached to the belly of the rover before being deployed in about 10 days for the first extraterrestrial rotorcraft flights in the thin Mars atmosphere.
“It’s a mission of high risk and high reward,” Aung said. “We are in uncharted territory, but this team is used to that. Just about every milestone from here through the end of our flight demonstration program will be a first, and each has to succeed for us to go on to the next.”
The helicopter’s mission is a technology demonstration project, Aung explained, the findings of which could lead to actively adding aerial dimension vehicles to space exploration.
Next-generation rotorcraft, the descendants of Ingenuity, could add an aerial dimension to future exploration of the red planet with advanced robotic flying vehicles that would offer a unique viewpoint not provided by current orbiters high overhead or by rovers and landers on the ground, providing high-definition images and reconnaissance for robots or humans, and enable access to deep craters or terrain that is difficult for rovers to reach.
“Flying is the motivation, period,” Aung said. “By adding aerial dimension, we will get to places we simply can’t get to today with rovers or with astronauts in the future. This would give us high definition reconnaissance information for these rovers and astronauts before they take these long journeys and traverses across the planet in the future.”
After Perseverance deploys Ingenuity to the Mars surface, the helicopter will then have a 30-Martian-day (31-Earth-day) experimental flight test window. If Ingenuity survives its first bone-chilling Martian nights — where temperatures dip as low as minus 130 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 90 degrees Celsius) — the team will proceed with the first flight of an aircraft on another world. If Ingenuity succeeds in taking off and hovering during its first flight, over 90% of the project’s goals will have been achieved. If the rotorcraft lands successfully and remains operable, up to four more flights could be attempted, each one building on the success of the last.
“We will start out very conservatively, taking on riskier and riskier flights as we go, because any of these can end prematurely if we have a bad landing, and then, mission over, you know,” said Aung, excitedly detailing the planned flight patterns.
She realizes the eyes of the world are on the LCF-based JPL lab right now, she said, but she shares in the fascination and thrill of watching Mars.
“I think humanity attempting to take flight for the first time outside the Earth’s atmosphere is incredibly exciting,” she said, but then quickly recognized the pressure, “We just have to very carefully plan each step, be very conservative every single step.”
For Aung, working at NASA’s JPL on a mission like this is a dream come true, she said. Although she grew up fascinated by space exploration, she never thought she’d have a chance to lead a project on Mars.
As a young student, her first love was math, she admitted, and it would have been her major in college if it hadn’t been for her parents.
“Quite frankly, they wanted me to major in something that also had an application,” she said with a laugh.
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, she focused on her next academic passion, signal processing and communications.
When she applied for a position at JPL, “I gave it my all. And it’s been a great day every day since,” she said.
Aung is now in her 30th year at the agency, although she laughingly tells people who might like to guess her age, “I’ve been working here since I was 10 years old.”
The engineer and her husband have two children, 16 and 14 years old, both students at La Cañada High School.
When asked what her family thinks of her and JPL’s current rock star status around the world, Aung digs into the answer, recognizing the long hours and lost weekends that have been spent on such a yearslong endeavor.
“I thank my family and I’m so grateful to my family. I would like to share this accomplishment with them, because they have been living the sacrifice with me,” she said, giving a nod to the names “Perseverance” and “Ingenuity.”
The entire team made sacrifices, she emphasized, with some scientists putting off honeymoons and canceling vacations over the past few years for the sake of the mission.
“It’s why I actually love the names of Ingenuity and Perseverance … because, ingenuity, for example, can mean great ideas,” she said. “But to really make something happen, to make it reality, it takes perseverance, it takes grit, it takes the hours. It takes the commitment.”
To follow the mission on the red planet and see video and images as they are received via a connection through the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, visit jpl.nasa.gov.