The Man Who Wanted to Fly on Mars – Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The Mars Helicopter is riding to the Red Planet this summer with NASA's Perseverance rover. The helicopter's chief engineer, Bob Balaram, shares the saga of how it came into being.

Evenbefore this interviewer can finish the question, "Did anyone ever tell youthis was a crazy idea?" Bob Balaram jumps in: "Everyone. All the time."

This"crazy idea" is the Mars Helicopter, currently at Kennedy Space Center waiting to hitch a ride to theRed Planet on the Mars Perseverance rover this summer.

AlthoughBalaram probably didn't know it at the time, the seed for an idea like thissprouted for him in the 1960s Apollo era, during his childhood in south India.His uncle wrote to the U.S. Consulate, asking for information about NASA andspace exploration. The bulging envelope they sent back, stuffed with glossybooklets, entranced young Bob. His interest in space was piqued further bylistening to the Moon landing on the radio. "I gobbled it up," hesays. "Long before the internet, the U.S. had good outreach. You had myeyeballs."

Hisactive brain and fertile imagination focused on getting an education, whichwould lead him to a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the IndianInstitute of Technology, a master's and Ph.D. in computer and systemsengineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a career at NASA's JetPropulsion Laboratory in Southern California. That's where he has remained for35 years as a robotics technologist.

Balaram'scareer has encompassed robotic arms, early Mars rovers, technology for anotional balloon mission to explore Venus and a stint as lead for the MarsScience Laboratory entry, descent and landing simulation software.

CuttingThrough Obstacles, Red Tape and the Martian Atmosphere

Aswith many innovative ideas, it took a village to make the helicopter happen. Inthe 1990s, Balaram attended a professional conference, where Stanford professorIlan Kroo spoke about a "mesicopter," a miniature airborne vehiclefor Earth applications that was funded as a NASA Innovative Advanced Conceptsproposal.

Thisled Balaram to think about using one on Mars. He suggested a joint proposalwith Stanford for a NASA Research Announcement submission and recruited AeroVironment,a small company in Simi Valley, California. The proposal got favorable reviews,and although it was not selected for funding at that time, it did yield ablade-rotor test under Mars conditions at JPL. Other than that, the idea "saton a shelf" for 15 years.

Fastforward to a conference where the University of Pennsylvania presented aboutthe use of drones and helicopters. Charles Elachi, then director of JPL,attended that session. When he returned to JPL, he asked whether something likethis could be used on Mars. A colleague of Balaram's mentioned his previouswork in that area of research. Balaramdusted off that proposal, and Elachi asked him to write a new one for thecompetitive call for Mars 2020 investigation payloads. This sped up the processof developing a concept.

Balaramand his team had eight weeks to submit a proposal. Working day and night, theymet the deadline with two weeks to spare.

Althoughthe helicopter idea was not selected as an instrument, it was funded fortechnology development and risk reduction. Mimi Aung became Mars Helicopter projectmanager, and after the team worked on risk reduction, NASA decided to fund thehelicopter for flight as a technology demonstration.

Buildingand Testing a Beast

Sothen the reality set in: How does one actually build a helicopter to fly onMars and get it to work?

Noeasy feat. Balaram describes it as a perfectly blank canvas, but withrestrictions. His physics background helped him envision flying on Mars, a planetwith an atmosphere that is only 1% as dense as Earth's. He compares it toflying on Earth at a 100,000-foot (30,500-meter) altitude - about seventimes higher than a typical terrestrial helicopter can fly. Another challengewas that the copter could carry only a few kilograms, including the weight ofbatteries and a radio for communications. "You can't just throw mass atit, because it needed to fly," he says.

Itdawned on Balaram that it was like building a new kind of aircraft that justhappens to be a spacecraft. And because it is a "passenger" on aflagship mission, he says, "we have to guarantee 100% that it will besafe."

Theend result: a 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter with two pairs of light counter-rotatingblades - an upper and lower pair, to slice through the Martian atmosphere. Eachpair of blades spans 4 feet (1.2 meters) in diameter.

Onceit was built, Balaram says, the question was, "How do you test this beast?There's no book saying how." Because there is no easily accessible placeon Earth with a thin atmosphere like the one on Mars, they ran tests in avacuum chamber and the 25-foot Space Simulation Chamber at JPL.

Abouttwo-and-a-half months after landing at Jezero Crater, the Mars Helicopter teamwill have a window of about 30 days to perform a technology demonstration inthe actual environment of the planet, starting with a series of vehiclecheckouts, followed by attempts of first-ever flights in the very thin Martian atmosphere.

Despitebest efforts and the best tests available on Earth, this is a high-risk,high-reward technology demonstration, with Balaram saying quite frankly, "Wecould fail."

Butif this "crazy idea" succeeds on Mars, it will be what Balaram describesas "kind of a Wright Brothers moment on another planet" - the firsttime a powered aircraft will have flown on Mars, or any planet besides Earth,for that matter. This potential breakthrough could help pave the way for futurecraft that would expand NASA's portfolio of vehicles to explore other worlds.

Andpartly because there have been so many challenges along the way, it's atestament to the dedication, vision, persistence and attitude of Balaram andhis colleagues that the Mars Helicopter concept was funded, planned, developedand built and is heading to the Red Planet this summer.

"Bob isthe inventor of our Mars Helicopter. He innovated the design and followed up onthat vision to its fruition as chief engineer through all phases of design, developmentand test," says project manager Aung. "Whenever we encountered atechnical roadblock - and we encountered many roadblocks - we always turned toBob, who always carries an inexhaustible set of potential solutions to beconsidered. Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever seen Bob feelingstuck at any point!"

The Home StretchToward Mars

Themain purpose of the Mars 2020 mission is to deliver the Perseverance rover,which will not only continue to explore the past habitability of the planet,but will actually search for signs of ancient microbial life. It will alsocache rock and soil samples for pickup by a potential future mission and helppave the way for future human exploration of Mars. Even if the helicopterencounters difficulties, the science-gathering mission of the Perseverancerover won't be affected.

Balarampoints out that in addition to the usual "seven minutes of terror" experienced by theteam on Earth during a Mars landing, once the helicopter is on Mars andattempting to fly, "This is the seven seconds of terror every time we takeoff or land."

DoesBalaram worry about all this, even a little? "There's been a crisis everysingle week of the last six years," he says. "I'm used to it."

Balaramsheds any stress that may crop up through backpacking, hiking and massage. There'salso his very supportive wife, Sandy, who bears a title within the team and herown acronym: CMO, or Chief Morale Officer. She has regularly baked cakes, piesand other goodies for Balaram to share with his colleagues for sustenanceduring the long process.

Andhe has high praise for his teammates on the Mars Helicopter project, saying thepeople attracted to it are agile and fast-moving. "It's a great team,determined to dare mighty things - that's the fun part," Balaram says. Histake on daring mighty things: "Good ideas don't die - they just take awhile."

News Media Contact

DC AgleJet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena,

Written by Jane Platt


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The Man Who Wanted to Fly on Mars - Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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