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.”
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.”
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.