The team behind NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter has been named the 2021 winner of the John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr. Award for Space Exploration from the Space Foundation.
The foundation’s goal is “Advocating for Innovation. Bettering Life on Earth.” The annual award recognizes extraordinary accomplishments by a company, space agency, or consortium of organizations in the realm of space exploration and discovery. It honors the memory of astronaut John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr., the command module pilot for the Apollo 13 mission. During Apollo 13’s April 1970 voyage to the Moon, an oxygen tank ruptured, placing the crew in peril. It was a time of high drama and high anxiety as people around the globe watched NASA work against the clock and against the odds to return the crew safely to Earth.
The Ingenuity Mars Helicopter team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California faced many challenges on their way to achieving humankind’s first powered, controlled flight on another planet. The helicopter’s first test flight was full of unknowns. The Red Planet has an extremely thin atmosphere with only 1% the pressure at the surface compared to our planet while also being home to significant gravity – one-third that of Earth. On April 19, 2021, Ingenuity climbed to its prescribed maximum altitude of 10 feet (3 meters) and maintained a stable hover for 30 seconds before descending again, becoming the first ever rotorcraft to fly on another planet.
Since then, the Mars Helicopter has flown a total of seven times, transitioning from being a technology demonstration to an operations demonstration intended to explore how aerial scouting and other functions could benefit future explorations of Mars and other worlds.
The Space Foundation award will be presented Aug. 23 during the opening ceremony of the 36th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
Recent Swigert Award winners include the InSight-Mars Cube One joint project teams, the Dawn mission, and the Cassini mission.