February 24, 2024

Brighton Journal

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

Before Ingenuity landed on Mars, scientists nearly managed to kill it
Zoom in / This is the last photo Perseverance took of Ingenuity before it drifted away from its final resting place.

NASA/Simon Schmaus

Mimi Ong couldn't hide her excitement as she drove down Oak Grove Drive, the leafy road leading to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ong spent her formative years in Burma and Malaysia, two countries that do not have a space program. A career in aviation seemed beyond her reach. However, she was 22 years old, and was interviewing for a job on the Deep Space Network. Ong dreamed of helping NASA intercept and amplify faint signals sent to Earth from humanity's most distant spacecraft, including Voyager.

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

On that day in 1990, the math-loving engineer interviewed potential managers and visited the facilities at the laboratory. I felt at home immediately. Ong was an energetic and enthusiastic person by nature, speaking quickly and asking a million questions. “You're like a kid in a candy store,” one manager said. it was. Ong couldn't help herself. More than anywhere in the world, this was where she wanted to be.

I got the job. Over the next quarter century, Ong would work on the Deep Space Network and various other programs. Eventually, she became a director overseeing the guidance, navigation, and control systems that help spacecraft fly.

In 2014, she was given the choice. Ong could stay on as director — a senior position in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) hierarchy — or take on a startup project to develop a small helicopter that might one day fly on Mars.

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Ong has made the leap. She and a small team delve into the technical details of an engineering challenge nearly impossible due to the extremely thin air on the Red Planet. But even as the team made progress, a formidable array of opponents lined up against a program that was aiming to get the ride on track. perseverance Rover to Mars in 2020

Over and over again, at JPL, on the upper floors of NASA's headquarters building in Washington, D.C., and in the halls of Congress, these critics have tried to kill… cleverness. On several occasions, they almost succeeded.

This is the inside story of how Ong and a few other flying heroes on Mars eventually succeeded.

The origin of genius

The mad scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been dreaming of flying on Mars for some time. An engineer named Bob Balaram started thinking about this idea in the 1990s, and he and a small team got a little money to put the idea down on paper. But before they could start building anything, the funding dried up. The project has been frozen for more than a decade.

It received new life in 2013 when JPL's longtime director, a Lebanese-born scientist and engineer named Charles El Ashi, gave a tour of the guidance and navigation section. The group had about 1,000 employees, one of whom, Ong, was its deputy director. She looked after Elachi and the lab's chief engineer, Rene Freidat, nearby. After visiting the drone laboratory, they boarded a minibus to move to the next stop.

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“Why don't drones or helicopters fly on Mars?” Al-Ashi asked Faridat.

Neither he nor Ong had a good answer. So Elachi provided a little seed funding for Balaram and a few others to update their calculations from the 1990s and determine whether the miniaturization revolution spurred by mobile technology would make flying on Mars — where the vehicle would have to be extremely light but capable of spinning its blades at thousands of revolutions per minute — possible. . Ong was asked to support the project as a side job.

Charles Elachi served as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a decade and a half.
Zoom in / Charles Elachi served as director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a decade and a half.

Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images

Eventually, it took up more and more of her time. In September 2014, Ong had to decide whether to remain in a management role for a large division or take over the helicopter project. Even then, strong political winds were blowing around this idea, which would have taken up valuable space. perseverance Rover of scientific experiments.

“In hindsight, I realize how important it was to let go,” she said of her first management role at JPL. “But at the time, I didn't think twice about it. I felt like I had something to offer.”

It was her big chance, so she took it.