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‘We couldn’t be happier’: MIT grad says after Mars helicopter completes first flight

An image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Asu of engineers celebrating at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, April 19, 2021, as they receive confirmation that the Ingenuity helicopter had completed its first short flight on Mars. The experimental vehicle shows how explorers can study the red planet from the sky as well as the ground.
An image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Asu of engineers celebrating at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Monday, April 19, 2021, as they receive confirmation that the Ingenuity helicopter had completed its first short flight on Mars. The experimental vehicle shows how explorers can study the red planet from the sky as well as the ground.NASA/JPL-CALTECH/ASU/NYT

An MIT graduate working on NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter team said the helicopter’s first successful flight was “a dream come true.”

“It’s a dream come true, and I know it’s a cliche, but it really is. It’s a dream come true to be working on this project for all these years and be even more lucky that the whole team is able to see it come to fruition,” Theodore “Teddy” Tzanetos said in a telephone interview Monday. “We all are hoping this is going to be a stepping stone, a foundation for future missions to come. And hopefully one day there will be many more fleets of rotorcraft on Mars, but it all starts with that first point, which happened today so we couldn’t be happier.”

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Tzanetos, who received undergraduate and graduate degrees at MIT, serves as the Ingenuity helicopter’s tactical lead, according to NASA’s website. The helicopter, which weighs just four pounds, traveled to Mars aboard the Perseverance rover and survived its first night free from the rover earlier this month. Following the success of the first flight, Tzanetos said the team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labaratory “couldn’t be happier.”

The helicopter’s Monday flight consisted of takeoff, hover, and landing. Moving forward, the helicopter will attempt flights of increasing complexity, and Tzanteos said the success of the initial flight is a “great sign” for the success of the experiment moving forward.

“There are no promises in space. We’re going to pore over the data that we got back today, and the data we’ll continue to get back tomorrow ... and then we will use that to plan our next flight. ... It’s definitely a great sign that today was a success but that’s no promise or guarantee,” he said. “lt’s a matter of baby-stepping our way forward. We’re not going to worry about Flight, 3, 4, or 5, just No. 2.”

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In this image from NASA, the experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity casts a shadow as it hovers above the surface of the planet on Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)
In this image from NASA, the experimental Mars helicopter Ingenuity casts a shadow as it hovers above the surface of the planet on Monday, April 19, 2021. The little 4-pound helicopter rose from the dusty red surface into the thin Martian air Monday, achieving the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. (NASA via AP)Associated Press

Tzanetos’s involvement with Ingenuity stretches back to his first years at JPL and is a result of a “longtime passion for aircraft and robotic platforms.” Initially, he was hired to work on a project with Google but made a conscious effort to get involved with the Mars helicopter project once he heard about it.

“One day I heard about the Mars helicopter and I knocked on a couple doors, asking around, ‘Is there anything that needs help? Is there any work that needs to be done?’ and sure enough I was lucky enough to be brought on board,” he said. “My first responsibility was ground support equipment, building the charging platforms and kind of the life support equipment for the hardware ... and then it kind of snowballed from there.”

Now, Tzanetos works primarily in operations.

Monday’s successful flight? A “textbook operation,” he said.

Charlie McKenna can be reached at charlie.mckenna@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9.