The 2,459th Meeting of the Society

May 20, 2022 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

The 91st Joseph Henry Lecture

Ingenuity: The First Flying Machine on Mars

First Controlled Powered Flight on Another Planet

J. (Bob) Balaram

Chief Engineer of Ingenuity

Sponsored by MWZB Law


About the Lecture

A little over a hundred years after the Wright brothers achieved controlled powered flight on Earth, a team led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory succeeded in achieving controlled powered flight on another planet – Mars.  The accomplishment overcame the challenges of the thin atmosphere of Mars (about 1% of Earth), the harsh environment (with high radiation and temperatures plunging down to -130°C), the long distance between the vehicle and the operators (over 150 million miles away), and the rigors of an interplanetary journey.

This lecture will discuss the technical challenges faced in designing a vehicle to fly on Mars, and how they were addressed and, ultimately, overcome.  The lecture will follow the progression from what was to be a  a short-lived technology demonstration to a full-fledged component of a NASA mission to Mars.  And it will discuss the performance of Ingenuity on Mars, its engineering and scientific contributions and its maturation from a test flight platform to a full partner to the Perseverance Mars Rover and its quest for signs of ancient life on the red planet.  The lecture will also touch on the lessons learned from Ingenuity, so far, and how they are informing the design of flying craft now being designed for scientific missions on Mars and other planets.

About the Speaker

Bob Balaram is a Principal Member of the Staff at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, where he has been since finishing his doctorate.

His research interests include planetary rotorcraft design and engineering, high-fidelity physics-based modeling & simulation, the application of simulations technology to entry, descent and landing (“EDL”) engineering, methods for verification and validation of space systems

EDL designs,  the design and engineering of rovers, advanced design methods and environments for rover and aerobot navigation, telerobotic systems, and validation of autonomous systems.

Bob is the originator of the concept that became the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars, and he served as the Chief Engineer for Ingenuity throughout its design, development, test and operation phases.   In addition he led a strategic research and technology development project to design and develop future helicopters for future scientific missions on Mars and other planets, building on the success of Ingenuity.

Previously Bob researched precision landing methods for Mars as well as advanced simulation techniques for planetary EDL.  He led the team that developed a high-fidelity EDL simulator that was used by the Curiosity and Perseverance missions.  He is the co-developer of a simulator for planetary rover navigation and control.  He led design teams for developing Mars aerobot (aerial robot) perception systems, a deep-diving Venus balloon gondola concept, and balloon-carried imaging sondes for deployment at Venus.  He also was a co-developer of the Rocky-7 rover platform, a prototype and precursor to the new generation of rovers such as those on the MER mission.

Bob earned a BTech in Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, and an MS and PhD in Computer and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.