I pilot NASA's first and only Mars helicopter. My job can be like a video game, but not the kind with a joystick.
- Håvard Grip pilots NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, which has flown 40 times on Mars.
- Flying the first interplanetary drone is like playing a strategic video game (not the joystick kind).
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Håvard Grip, who is the chief pilot for the Ingenuity Mars helicopter at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I couldn't pilot a helicopter here on Earth, but I do it on Mars all the time.
I'm the chief pilot for NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, which landed on Mars with the Perseverance rover in February 2021. At the time, I was pretty certain the helicopter was only going to make up to five flights. And if we got five flights, man, I would be overjoyed.
Today, we've flown the helicopter 40 times. It's been a totally different thing than I dared to imagine. I can almost believe anything that you tell me Ingenuity can do, because it just keeps going.
I love my job. It's a little unusual and a little different than piloting an aircraft on Earth, in part because it's so far.
It takes about five to 20 minutes to send a message to Mars. That means everything moves on a slower timeline. The execution of a single flight takes multiple days. It's not a real-time thing. You're not sitting and joy-sticking something and looking at it.
It's like a very particular kind of strategic video game, perhaps. It's thinking about all of the eventualities and gathering all of the information and making very careful decisions. Because when it's game over, it's game over.
There's no recovering a crashed helicopter on Mars.
—NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) January 12, 2023
I landed at JPL and stumbled into Mars helicopters
When I'm not on Mars time, I wake up, eat a breakfast of bread and cheese, and go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory around 9 a.m.
I am not a morning person. I need my big Starbucks-sized coffee. But JPL is great. It's kind of unique for a NASA center because it's so compact. It's more like a college campus in some ways.
I love seeing colleagues face-to-face and having quality conversations, so the density is a plus for me. In my section, I'm surrounded by people that work on other Mars missions and some orbiters.
I started off doing a lot of academic work before I landed at JPL in 2013 — not so much by design. It's just an opportunity that came around, and then we were doing helicopters.
I was there from the very beginning, when we first had the idea to try to fly a helicopter on Mars. Bob Balaram came up with the concept.
Then Bob started developing the idea for Ingenuity. I was working with him at the time, on an idea to grab an asteroid from space and bring it back to Earth. I guess he saw something in me that made him give me the job of leading the flight controls for the helicopter. I'm glad he took that gamble.
The first flight in April 2021 was the most exciting
After Perseverance dropped Ingenuity to the surface of Mars, we were on a very tight schedule. We had a 30-day window to complete our mission of up to five flights.
We worked on a Mars schedule at the time, moving our days 40 minutes per day to keep our work hours aligned with sunlight hours on Mars. We had to work when Ingenuity was in the sun.
On the day of the first flight, we up-linked the flight plan in the daytime, and then in the afternoon tried to go to sleep for a few hours. I didn't get any sleep. Then I got up around midnight to go to work and get the first data back from Ingenuity.
I arrived at JPL around 1 a.m. and sat in the operations room with other team leaders.
We were trembling. We'd come all this way and it could all just go wrong in a moment.
Then we saw plots and images that looked eerily like the flights we'd been doing in simulation for four years. Now we were seeing it in real life for the first time. I was enormously relieved.
Then we tried to gather as much data as possible in preparation for a press conference and a call with the president. That was a long stretch. It was all quite exciting.
How we fly a helicopter on Mars
Flights now look a little more mundane.
My team, we make the big decisions here on Earth. We look at whatever situation we're in. What's the weather like? What's the terrain like where we are and where we're going? Are there areas where we can land? What's the capability of the aircraft? Can we climb at a certain rate? How much energy do we have to go from point A to point B? And so on.
That's the starting point. Then we can get down to planning the exact details of the flight. Basically every maneuver that the helicopter takes, we sit and design here on Earth.
Then we have pretty sophisticated software that allows us to try it out in simulation. We can literally see the helicopter flying over terrain that replicates the real Mars terrain it's going to be flying over, and we look for issues. We don't want to fly over, say, a crater because it might disturb the navigation. So we might have to plan a path around that.
We do this planning over days and weeks.
Once we have a path we're satisfied with, we put this into a small snippet of code that encodes precisely how we want Ingenuity to fly. Then we radiate it off, and all we can do at that point is to sit and wait for it to happen and get data back.
At that point, it's Ingenuity's job to make small decisions to make that happen. It knows what we want it to do. As it starts flying, 500 times per second it reevaluates: Where am I? Where should I be? And it makes these tiny little adjustments continuously in order to stay on that path.
Of course, part of my job is looking at how did it go afterwards. Typically within a day or so, we get data back from the helicopter. That's the moment of truth, always. That's when we assess the success of the flight. We have learned a lot. Sometimes we make adjustments for the next flight.
Here's my advice if you want a job like mine
I never tried to find a career in Mars helicopters. I wasn't even that interested in Mars. A lot of people in this business have grown up dreaming about space. I'm just not one of those people. Sometimes it's just where life takes you.
Still, if you're talking about my kind of job, I think it's obvious you have to have some interest.
One of the biggest things for me is being able to combine theoretical knowledge with practical skills, especially in terms of software development. That's a very powerful combination, because it means you can do the math and, instead of trying to convince someone else to do your idea, you can build something through software.
A lot of people are good at the theory, but not actually doing something practically. And vice versa.
So that would be my big recommendation: Try to do both.
A great way to get a foot in the door at JPL is an internship. We have a lot of internships in the summers. It's a way to get to know what we're doing, what the needs are, and establish connections to people.
Ingenuity will end, but I'll still be working on Mars helicopters
There are a few ways Ingenuity's mission could end. One, of course, is crashing. It could just land on a rock, and that'll be it.
It's also possible that it stops working in less spectacular ways. Maybe it doesn't wake up one morning, because there was a solder joint that went bad.
It's hard to say how I'll feel when the mission ends. I don't think of the helicopter as a being with a personality, or anything like that. But it's something I've worked with a long time, so I'm sure there's going to be some emotions.
My job won't go away when Ingenuity ends, though. I'm also the chief engineer for the helicopters that will go to Mars in about a decade to collect the samples the Perseverance rover is stashing there, and bring them back to Earth.
In my role as a chief engineer for those recovery helicopters, I try to wear a big hat and look at the project as a system, and try to make sure people at the subsystem level are doing the right thing in a coordinated fashion. It's a lot of meetings and talking to people, not so much writing code like I did with Ingenuity.
We're in an early design phase for the new helicopters. The basic design now looks like Ingenuity with wheels and an arm. But there's lots and lots of work to do. That is the next big thing.
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