Did you now the man behind NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter is an IIT-Madras Alumnus- Bob Balaram? We bet you didn’t! On April 19, 2021, Ingenuity made history by taking the first powered flight on another world other than the one we inhabit. The small tissue-box sized helicopter flew successfully over the Martian surface for 40 seconds and then successfully landed.
An army of scientists and engineers were behind this successful landing. But the successful flight’s credit goes significantly to the Chief Engineer of Ingenuity, Bob Balaram. The IIT-Madrus alumnus after the flight spoke to American news agency AFP and said, “She’s even healthier than she was before this flight — she shook off some of her dust that had been covering the solar panels, and is in fact producing even more solar energy than before.”
It should be a matter of pride for all of us Indians for having an Indian play such a significant part in the creation of a vehicle that flew on a different planet.
Let’s learn more about J. Bob Balaram
Balaram was born and brought up in South India. He studied B. Tech from the highly prestigious IIT Madras in the 80s. Post that, he went on to receive an M.S. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York. He also completed his Ph.D. from the same institute. In 1985.
After completed his doctorate, he joined Jet Propulsion Laboratory in NASA and started working in the space of EDL (entry, descent and landing), telerobotic, mobility concept development, etc. Balaram has also led a team that developed an EDL simulator that received an Achievement Award from the NASA Group. Moreover, the simulator was also adopted into usage by the current Mars Science Lab mission.
At JPL, he led multiple design and development teams that developed the Mars helicopter’s perception systems and imaging sondes that were carried by balloon to Venus.
A curious child, Balaram was inspired by all things space and especially the Apollo landings. According to a tit-bit by NASA, when an interviewer finished the question about the Mars helicopter and asked Balaram, “Did anyone ever tell you this was a crazy idea?”, Balaram replied, “Everyone. All the time.”
Balaram was the chief innovator and leader who oversaw the team that developed the helicopter that flew on Mars. The innovation started back in 2013 and it took the team 6 more years to initiate a test flight in January 2019.
Meet the other Indian that has worked on Mars Mission: Dr. Swati Mohan
It should be noted that Balaram isn’t the only Indian who has worked on NASA’s current Mars exploration mission. Dr. Swati Mohan, an Indian-American scientist was also lauded by Indians across the world when Perseverance rover touched down on Mars in January this year. She oversaw the attitude control and landing system of the rover. NASA said that Dr. Swati was the GN&C Operations Lead for the Mars 2020 mission. The GN&C (Guidance, Navigation, Controls) system is also known as the spacecraft’s “eyes and ears”.
The Perseverance-Ingenuity mission recap
Perseverance along with the helicopter Ingenuity touched down on the Martian surface earlier this year on February 18. From February till April, Perseverance traveled from one crater to other and finally deployed itself on Jezero Crater.
Unlike Perseverance, which has a few scientific tasks at hands, Ingenuity’s only task was to conduct test flights. It’s first flight was completely autonomous, meaning it flew with the help of the guidance, navigation and control systems that were onboard. There’s a reason why Ingenuity takes flight autonomously. Due to the data that needs to be sent from and to Earth and Mars using satellites and NASA’S network, the flight is not observable from Earth in real time.
After the Ingenuity took its first successful flight, Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA issued a statement saying:
“Now, 117 years after the Wright brothers succeeded in making the first flight on our planet, NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has succeeded in performing this amazing feat on another world. While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked. As an homage to the two innovative bicycle makers from Dayton, this first of many airfields on other worlds will now be known as Wright Brothers Field, in recognition of the ingenuity and innovation that continue to propel exploration.”