The Man Who Wanted to Fly on Mars

The Mars Helicopter is riding to the Red Planet this summer with NASA’s Perseverance rover. The helicopter’s chief engineer, Bob Balaram, shares the saga of how it came into being.

Even before this interviewer can finish the question, “Did anyone ever tell you this was a crazy idea?” Bob Balaram jumps in: “Everyone. All the time.”

This “crazy idea” is the Mars Helicopter, currently at Kennedy Space Center waiting to hitch a ride to the Red Planet on the Mars Perseverance rover this summer.

Although Balaram probably didn’t know it at the time, the seed for an idea like this sprouted for him in the 1960s Apollo era, during his childhood in south India. His uncle wrote to the U.S. Consulate, asking for information about NASA and space exploration. The bulging envelope they sent back, stuffed with glossy booklets, entranced young Bob. His interest in space was piqued further by listening to the Moon landing on the radio. “I gobbled it up,” he says. “Long before the internet, the U.S. had good outreach. You had my eyeballs.”

His active brain and fertile imagination focused on getting an education, which would lead him to a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, a master’s and Ph.D. in computer and systems engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a career at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. That’s where he has remained for 35 years as a robotics technologist.

Balaram’s career has encompassed robotic arms, early Mars rovers, technology for a notional balloon mission to explore Venus and a stint as lead for the Mars Science Laboratory entry, descent and landing simulation software.

Cutting Through Obstacles, Red Tape and the Martian Atmosphere

As with many innovative ideas, it took a village to make the helicopter happen. In the

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