On January 18, NASA bid goodnight to Ingenuity, the first aircraft to make a controlled, powered flight on another world. The 3.5-pound helicopter sustained irreparable rotor damage—possibly due to a hard landing—following its 72nd and final flight over Mars.

And yet, NASA had reason to celebrate. Like other robotic explorers, Ingenuity surpassed its builders’ expectations. What had started as a technology demonstration—engineers had hoped to achieve five flights—became an expedition of more than 70 flights and 128 minutes of flying time.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has honored the helicopter’s achievement by donating the prototype of Ingenuity to the National Air and Space Museum, where it joins a pantheon of Mars explorers that includes the Mars Pathfinder prototype and the Sojourner rover back-up, Marie Curie

Perseverance captured this image of Ingenuity during its 54th flight.

In May 2016, the Ingenuity prototype achieved the first powered, controlled free flight in conditions that simulated the atmosphere on Mars. The test took place inside JPL’s space simulator, a 25-foot-wide vacuum chamber that had been emptied and backfilled with a thin carbon dioxide atmosphere. The successful flight gave NASA the confidence to commit to the project. The Ingenuity engineering team refers to that test as their “Wright brothers-at-Kitty Hawk moment.”

“This is a game-changer,” Mimi Aung, the project manager for Ingenuity, told Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine in 2019. “Right now, we explore deep space from orbit or with rovers, but we don’t have any vehicles taking advantage of the aerial dimension. This will allow us to get to places we can’t get to with rovers—or even with astronauts.”

The Ingenuity prototype has been put into storage and will eventually be displayed at one of the Museum’s two locations.


This article is from the Spring 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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