In the early hours of April 19, 2021, I sat in a brightly lit room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory with a group of colleagues, all of us shifting nervously in our seats. The moment we had spent years preparing for had arrived. Would we make history? Or would our dreams end in a thousand pieces on the surface of a planet 150 million miles away?
Being a Martian helicopter pilot means many things that are familiar to every pilot. It means being an expert on the functioning and performance of your aircraft. It means understanding how it will respond to the tiniest gust or twitch of the controls. It means keeping track of your surroundings: the terrain, the weather, the atmospheric density, where the sun is positioned in the sky. It means carefully planning the details of each flight: where to go, how high and how fast to fly, and how aggressively to maneuver.
But flying a helicopter on Mars also means something different. Those minute and precise adjustments of the controls—they are not something you’re doing in the moment. They are something you did in the past. Over seven years prior to that day, I led the aerodynamic analysis and the development of Ingenuity’s flight control system, writing thousands of lines of code dictating exactly how the helicopter should react to those unexpected gusts.
So on that April morning, all I could do was wait and hope that all those painstakingly written lines of code would do the right thing. Would Ingenuity hover majestically over the Martian surface? Or would it be overpowered by the Martian winds, lose track of where it was, or prematurely think it had landed?
When data finally arrived on my computer, showing that Ingenuity had confidently executed the exact maneuvers we had sent off just hours earlier, it was a feeling unlike any other—the feeling of a thousand nagging worries and imagined disaster scenarios instantly evaporating. And on behalf of the team, that morning I got to complete another task familiar to every pilot: creating the first logbook entry for an extraterrestrial helicopter flight.
Håvard Grip led the development of the flight control system for Ingenuity, the robotic helicopter that since April has been achieving flights of increasingly longer distances over the Red Planet’s desolate terrain. Grip is Ingenuity’s chief pilot.