Meet the Burmese American who led NASA’s flight on Mars

MiMi Aung works with Teddy Tzanetos, left, and Bob Balaram, right, on a flight test for NASA’s Mars helicopter in January 2019. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
MiMi Aung works with Teddy Tzanetos, left, and Bob Balaram, right, on a flight test for NASA’s Mars helicopter in January 2019. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

MiMi Aung is no stranger to historic firsts. She was raised in Burma, where her mother was the first woman in the country to earn a doctorate in mathematics. On April 19, Aung served as team lead for NASA’s first helicopter flight on Mars.

It “was an incredible moment,”  Aung said of Ingenuity’s 39-second flight, which is drawing comparisons to the Wright brothers’ first flight on Earth in 1903 for its promise for future discovery and innovation. “This morning our dream came true.”

Ingenuity arrived on Mars on March 18, as part of NASA’s Perseverance rover’s mission to search for signs of ancient life and collect rocks and sediment for future missions to return to Earth. The helicopter carries a small piece of material from the Wright brothers’ plane on its mission.

Aung came to the United States at 16 and studied engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her parents had met at the university and Aung was born in the United States, though her family returned to Burma when she was 2 years old.

Her mother taught her a love of math and a rigorous approach to problem-solving. As a child, Aung asked her mother for the answer to a frustrating math problem, and her mother’s response carried a lesson in self-reliance and determination: “Never, never ask me for a shortcut.”

After earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering, Aung went to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. She worked on the Deep Space Network for communicating with spacecraft and later on autonomous flight systems.

As project manager of NASA’s Mars Helicopter Project, Aung oversees the diverse team that designed, built, tested and flew Ingenuity. She grew up in Burma, and other team members include chief engineer Bob Balaram, originally from India, and pilot Håvard Grip, originally from Norway.

The team tackled complex challenges, such as how to fly in a Martian atmosphere that is so thin that Aung compares it to air on Earth at an “elevation three times the height of the Himalayas.” So Ingenuity is light, a mere 1.8 kilograms, with blades that rotate more than 2,500 times per minute.

Ingenuity will make several more flights in the coming weeks to gather data and inform future helicopter missions to explore the red planet.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter on April 5, seen through Perseverance rover’s Mastcam-Z, a pair of zoomable cameras (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU)

NASA Acting Administrator Stephen G. Jurczyk credits Aung’s leadership with making Ingenuity’s mission possible. “Her excitement and enthusiasm for making this happen was infectious,” he said.

Working at NASA is “a privilege and just an enormous opportunity I value every day,” Aung says. “Being that little girl in Myanmar, I had no idea if I would ever be in another country, or let alone be a part of a community that’s actively” exploring space.