Indian American engineer behind Ingenuity’s historic Mars flight

Bob Balaram
Bob Balaram; photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For IIT-Madras trained Bob Balaram, seed of a ‘crazy idea’ like this sprouted in the 1960s Apollo era.

An Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras trained Indian American robotics technologist Bob Balaram is the man behind Monday’s history making flight of  NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter on the Red Planet.

The 19.3-inch-tall, 4-pound Ingenuity with no science instruments inside its tissue-box-size, fuselage became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet on April 19.

The solar-powered helicopter first became airborne at 3:34 a.m. EDT – 12:33 Local Mean Solar Time (Mars time) – climbing to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds.

It then descended, touching back down on the surface of Mars after logging a total of 39.1 seconds of flight, according to the Ingenuity team at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

READ: Swati Mohan steers NASA’s Mars rover to Red Planet (February 19, 2021)

The US space agency hailed the achievement as “our Wright brothers moment.” Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, said the helicopter was in fine fettle following the maiden run.”

”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,” he said.

The success of Mars helicopter “basically opens up a whole new dimension of exploring Mars,” Balaram said in February.

In March, Balaram revealed for the first time that Ingenuity is carrying a small piece of cloth that covered one of the wings of the Wright brothers’ first aircraft that achieved the first powered flight on Earth at Kitty Hawk in 1903, to pay tribute to the milestone.

For Balaram, who joined NASA in 1986 after getting a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the IIT, Madras and a master’s and PhD in computer and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it was the culmination of a 35 years career as a robotics technologist.

READ: Indian American astronaut Raja Chari in NASA Moon mission (December 10, 2020)

Balaram had his early education at Rishi Valley School founded by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti.

He is the second prominent engineer of Indian-origin to feature in Nasa’s Mars Mission after Swati Mohan, who is the lead operations engineer of the Mars Rover Perseverance.

Recounting the saga of how it all began, Balaram told a NASA interviewer last year that “Everyone. All the time” told him that the rotorcraft that rode to the Red Planet aboard NASA’s Perseverance was a “crazy idea.”

Although Balaram probably didn’t know it at the time, the seed for an idea like this sprouted for him in the 1960s Apollo era, during his childhood in south India.

READ: Indian American astronaut Raja Chari to visit space after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams (June 8, 2017)

His uncle wrote to the US Consulate, asking for information about NASA and space exploration. The bulging envelope they sent back, stuffed with glossy booklets, entranced young Bob.

His interest in space was piqued further by listening to the Moon landing on the radio. “I gobbled it up,” he says. “Long before the internet, the US had good outreach. You had my eyeballs.”

In the 1990s, Balaram had proposed using a miniature airborne vehicle for Earth applications on Mars. The idea “sat on a shelf” for 15 years before he was asked to revive it by Charles Elachi, then director of JPL.

Balaram and his team had eight weeks to submit a proposal. Working day and night, they met the deadline with two weeks to spare. Although it was not selected as an instrument, NASA decided to fund the helicopter for flight as a technology demonstration.

READ: Three Indian firms selected to make NASA ventilator (June 1, 2020)

Balaram describes the task of build a helicopter to fly on Mars as a perfectly blank canvas, but with restrictions.

His physics background helped him envision flying on Mars, a planet with an atmosphere that is only 1% as dense as Earth’s.

He compares it to flying on Earth at a 100,000-foot altitude – about seven times higher than a typical terrestrial helicopter can fly.

Another challenge was that the copter could carry only a few kilograms, including the weight of batteries and a radio for communications.

READ: NASA’s Madhulika Guhathakurta: listen to your gut, follow your passion (November 26, 2018)

“You can’t just throw mass at it, because it needed to fly,” he says. It dawned on Balaram that it was like building a new kind of aircraft that just happens to be a spacecraft.

And because it is a “passenger” on a flagship mission, he says, “we have to guarantee 100% that it will be safe.”

Once it 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 place on Earth with a thin atmosphere like the one on Mars, they ran tests in a vacuum chamber and the 25-foot Space Simulation Chamber at JPL.

“Bob is the inventor of our Mars Helicopter. He innovated the design and followed up on that vision to its fruition as chief engineer through all phases of design, development and test,” says project manager MiMi Aung.

“Whenever we encountered a technical roadblock – and we encountered many roadblocks – we always turned to Bob, who always carries an inexhaustible set of potential solutions to be considered. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen Bob feeling stuck at any point!”

READ: NASA releases posters seeking workers for Mars (June 16, 2016)

Balaram points out that in addition to the usual “seven minutes of terror” experienced by the team on Earth during a Mars landing, once the helicopter is on Mars and attempting to fly, “This is the seven seconds of terror every time we take off or land.”

Does Balaram worry about all this, even a little? “There’s been a crisis every single week of the last six years,” he says. “I’m used to it.”

Balaram sheds any stress that may crop up through backpacking, hiking and massage, according to the NASA article about him.

There’s also his very supportive wife, Sandy, who bears a title within the team and her own acronym: CMO, or Chief Morale Officer.

She has regularly baked cakes, pies and other goodies for Balaram to share with his colleagues for sustenance during the long process.

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