For the first time in history, humankind has taken flight on another planet. Millions of miles from Earth, on an alien world with a wisp-thin atmosphere, a tiny helicopter rose into the air, hovered for 39 seconds, and then gently touched back down on the surface of Mars.
Today’s historic flight is a tremendous feat of engineering and a marvelous display of—as the aircraft is named—ingenuity. Attached to the robot is a piece of fabric from the wing of the Wright brothers’ first aircraft, an emblem of humanity’s desire to take to the skies. And yet, when I look at pictures of Ingenuity or listen to NASA engineers discuss it, my reaction has nothing to do with the sophistication of the machinery or what it means for the robotic exploration of Mars. My thoughts are mostly Omgggg and look how cute it is and It’s doing such a good job.
I am not a spacecraft engineer, nor do I know this robot personally. But I am mortal, and we mortals tend to anthropomorphize robots and even have fuzzy feelings toward them. (The exception: If their appearance falls into the “uncanny valley” category, they can creep us out instead). A whole assortment of research on the relationship between people and machines shows that we can’t help attaching our little human feelings to the little mechanical robots we build. And NASA knows it.
As with other robotic missions, NASA maintains a Twitter account for Perseverance, the rover that brought Ingenuity to Mars in February, and dispatches are written from the perspective of the machine. “I love rocks,” Perseverance tweeted in February to its followers, who currently number 2.7 million. “I’m on the move!” it exclaimed in March as it took its first drive. “I’ve taken my first selfie,” the rover said earlier this month, showing us a picture of its robotic frame, with Ingenuity in the background. NASA has already shared imagery of Ingenuity’s flight—from Percy, stationed nearby, and from the helicopter itself, which captured its shadow flitting across the surface of Mars.
Perseverance and Ingenuity were not designed to be lovable. They can’t pout or whir with delight like Pixar’s WALL-E. But Percy can drill, and Ingenuity can wiggle its blades. Although these behaviors are programmed by engineers on Earth, to the public, watching from afar, the movements seem deliberate, as if the robots chose to probe the Martian soil, or to stretch their metal appendages. And when robots show such lifelike behaviors, our social brains react with empathy. (It also helps that Ingenuity, weighing less than four pounds, is smol; we’re more likely to find tiny things cuter than large things, and we tend to feel nurturing toward cute things.) Sometimes, such as in the case of Opportunity, the Mars rover that stopped working after a massive dust storm, people feel grief. In the case of Ingenuity’s first flight, we experience joy.
The Ingenuity helicopter arrived on Mars tucked safely inside the Perseverance rover’s belly. Percy carefully deployed Ingenuity in a delicate sequence over a few days, and then drove away, exposing the aerial explorer to the Martian elements. After a cold, dark night, Ingenuity soaked up the sun, charging its little solar panel. Percy watched from a distance as Ingenuity took flight and reached an altitude of 10 feet (3 meters), chirping pings of progress back to the rover. The whole scene resembled a mother bird watching her fledgling learn to fly into a big world full of dangers. “I think many people would empathize with the little bird because, to some extent, it’s a big achievement for that bird,” Marynel Vázquez, a computer scientist at Yale who studies interaction between humans and robots, told me. “Now the challenge is with engineering. We see this little tiny thing trying to survive on the red planet, which is a very harsh environment.”
Over the next few weeks, there will be more flight attempts. Ingenuity was designed to be lightweight, with blades that spin 40 times per second, so that it could generate enough lift to rise in an atmosphere that has 1 percent the density of our own. It’s capable of covering a distance of 980 feet (300 meters) at a time, and reaching an altitude of 15 feet (4.5 meters). Because of communication delays between Earth and Mars, engineers can’t control the helicopter with a joystick, so Ingenuity makes some decisions on its own, analyzing real-time data from its sensors and adjusting course so that it doesn’t stray from its programmed flight path. What a smart little robot!
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.
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.