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MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters at a recent press conference that the team will instruct the helicopter to make more daring flights. The Ingenuity mission is what NASA calls a technology demonstration, and it has been allotted just 30 Martian sols, equivalent to 31 Earth days, to do its work. So the team is going all out. “By the fifth flight, if we get that far, we are going to take very bold flights and take high risks,” Aung said, adding that the helicopter is unlikely to land safely after a certain point. The sight of Ingenuity smashed to bits might cause consternation for some people; studies have shown that people feel sympathy for robots when they see them being yelled at or physically abused, even machines that don’t have any human characteristics, such as Roombas.
When Ingenuity’s time is up, Perseverance will drive away to do its own work, searching for signs of fossilized life embedded in the craggy landscape. Ingenuity will remain where it is, possibly in pieces, but maybe as whole as the day it arrived. It might still be functional, capable of charging itself day after day. But it won’t be able to communicate with Percy, or us here on Earth. The rover won’t come back. Ingenuity will remain alone forever, warming itself in the sunlight that streaks through the Martian skies. Perhaps one reason NASA hasn’t given Ingenuity its own Twitter account is because most of its posts would be something like “Hello? Guys? Can anyone hear me?”
But there is more than empathy at play here. People also have a tendency to project their own feelings onto inanimate objects. When Ingenuity took off this week, I thought of the boat. You know the one. Giant, stuck, blocking traffic in the Suez Canal for days. As my colleague Amanda Mull wrote last month, the story of Ever Given exposed all the messy substratum of the shipping industry, “the persistent frailty of the global system on which corporations have built our physical world.” The boat also seemed, for many people, like the perfect encapsulation of how bogged down they had felt during the coronavirus pandemic. The story of the little Mars helicopter feels like the opposite. We do not see the technical challenges and failed test runs that took place on Earth, only the beautiful, butterscotch-colored expanse of Mars. Ingenuity is very much unstuck, and its historic flight feels hopeful because it has coincided with a different moment for Americans: the thaw of spring, the steady distribution of vaccines, the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
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For NASA’s part, the agency hopes that Ingenuity is the first in a line of aerial explorers on Mars. The first rover on the red planet—named Sojourner, in honor of Sojourner Truth, the enslaved woman who escaped bondage and became a civil-rights activist—was a technology demonstration too, and its mission led to the development of more rovers: Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and Perseverance. (NASA is also currently at work on a drone mission to another world: Titan, a moon of Saturn with a thick atmosphere, where it rains methane instead of water.) Scientists and engineers, always looking ahead, say future generations of Mars flyers could explore hard-to-reach spots and carry important payloads during astronaut missions.
But that future is still many years away. For now, robots are our best explorers, on Mars and beyond. With their help, we have roamed, drilled, and gazed on the red planet. We have flown through the rings of Saturn, grabbed a piece of an asteroid, and discovered a heart-shaped plain on Pluto’s surface. We’ve even thrown ourselves into the atmospheres of other planets. Robots have been our eyes and ears and, now, our wings.