The Current

This Montreal-born engineer helped fly a helicopter on Mars. She says it's a win for diversity here on Earth

NASA just flew a helicopter — on Mars — and controlled it from here on Earth. Montreal-born engineer Farah Alibay helped to make that happen, and says it's a testament to "what diverse teams can achieve."

Farah Alibay was fascinated by space growing up, but didn't see anyone like her

NASA engineer Farah Alibay says confirming that her team had flown a helicopter on Mars was a moment of relief, and disbelief.  (Submitted by Farah Alibay)

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A Montreal-born NASA engineer who worked on this week's historic first helicopter flight on Mars says the feat is a testament to "what diverse teams can achieve."

"If you looked at that room, a lot of us were immigrants to the United States; a lot of us had different backgrounds," said Farah Alibay, systems engineer and integration lead for the Ingenuity helicopter at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

"That's not always the case. There's a lot of times where I still — in the domain of STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] — where I stand out," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"It's not always the most welcoming field for minorities." 

NASA's experimental helicopter Ingenuity landed on Mars in February, piggybacking on the rover Perseverance. The device is 50 cm tall and weighs just 1.8 kg, with blades that needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute to achieve lift in the Martian environment (where gravity is a third of that on Earth, and the atmosphere is one per cent of our planet's thickness).

Flight of NASA helicopter on Mars described as 'Wright brothers' moment


23 days ago
Edmonton scientist Chris Herd, a member of the Mars Perseverance mission, explains the historic first powered flight in the thin Martian atmosphere. 6:31

On Monday, the helicopter took off from the surface, hovered, spun around, and then landed again. The flight was brief at 39 seconds, but Alibay's team at JPL had a nerve-wracking two-hour wait to find out if it worked.

After it touched back down, Ingenuity shared its logs with the nearby Perseverance, which then waited for an orbiter to come into range and relay the information back to California.

At about 3:35 a.m., the team at NASA speedily analyzed the data, confirming the flight within 10 minutes. 

Alibay said it was a moment of relief, and disbelief. 

"You test these things in the lab, you know the physics should work, but until you do it on Mars, you know, you don't quite believe it," she said.

"You see the data coming from Mars and you're like, 'Wow, we pulled this off.'"

Duty to be role model I lacked: Alibay

Alibay said she finds it "crazy" to think she gets paid to do something she loves so much.

"I get paid to fly a helicopter on Mars, and drive around on Mars. That is pretty cool," she said.

She told Galloway that she "was fascinated by space growing up, but didn't see anyone like me in those roles."

Even as she got older and her university studies brought her into the field, she often wondered: "Is this really a place for me?"

Now that she's found success in a field she's passionate about, she feels a duty to show young people what's possible. She does that through media appearances, and discussions with kids in school.

"I find it so important, especially when I hear back from parents or students who reach out to me and say, 'Hey, we really look up to you,' or, 'Hey, my kid is building a paper airplane in the living room right now because you talked about this,'" she said.

"I think it's all worth it because it will lead to more diverse teams eventually."

‘It was not a straight path to get here’ Canadian engineer on NASA Mars Perseverance mission

CBC News

3 months ago
In an interview on Rosemary Barton Live, Farah Alibay, a Canadian Engineer on NASA’s Mars perseverance mission says she hopes kids watching see the excitement and joy she felt after achieving her dream. 1:10

Greater exploration ahead

Alibay's team will attempt up to five more flights with Ingenuity over the next two weeks. Those flights will be longer, faster, and involve movement across the Martian terrain.

"We're basically just trying to learn as much as we can in order to enable more complex missions eventually," she said.

"A couple of decades from now, you may be seeing all sorts of aerial vehicles on Mars or on other planets, you know, exploring those worlds."

NASA is also planning missions to Saturn's moon Titan, Jupiter's moon Europa and Psyche, a metal asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter.

Alibay thinks missions like these are reviving public interest in space exploration.

"I could feel it in the room with us on Monday.... I knew that many Canadians were watching," she said.

"That energy that people are putting out there is really helping us with these long and difficult nights."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Susan McKenzie.

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