Look at that thing. It’s beautiful.
That’s Ingenuity, the drone that was sent to Mars on the Perseverance mission. It was intended to be a proof-of-concept test, expected to fly for only a couple of excursions, and then fail under the hellish Martian conditions. Instead, it has survived for two years.
Ingenuity defied the odds the day it first lifted off from Martian soil. The four-pound aircraft stands about 19 inches tall and is little more than a box of avionics with four spindly legs on one end and two rotor blades and a solar panel on the other. But it performed the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet — what NASA billed a “Wright brothers moment” — after arriving on Mars in April 2021.
It’s made over 50 flights. Apparently it’s a bit wonky, losing radio connection to the rover when it flies out of line of sight, or when the cold shuts it down, but when it warms up, or the rover drives closer, it gets right up again.
NASA has still got good engineering. It might be because of all the redundancy they build into every gadget — this little drone cost $80 million dollars! — but I have a hypothesis that the real secret to its success is what they left out. There’s no narcissistic and incompetent billionaire attached to the project, just a lot of engineers who take pride in their work.