From Gaza to NASA: Journey of an engineer who helped build Ingenuity Mars Helicopter

"Everybody thought it was not gonna fly."
Baba Tamim
Left: Illustration depicts Mars Helicopter Ingenuity during a test flight on Mars. Right: Loay Elbasyouni.
Left: Illustration depicts Mars Helicopter Ingenuity during a test flight on Mars. Right: Loay Elbasyouni.

Loay Elbasyouni/NASA 

“This thing is not gonna work.”

That’s what friends would tell the then-senior electrical engineer of the world’s first space helicopter.

Whether it was his friends, or his family, who had no idea one of their kin was involved in such a massive undertaking halfway through the eight-year project, the Palestinian-American engineer has a unique story to tell.

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Loay Elbasyouni, the team's lead electrical engineer at the time, worked on the creative robotic helicopter, Ingenuity, from the beginning.

From Gaza to NASA: Journey of an engineer who helped build Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
NASA's Ingenuity Mars Helicopter stands on the Red Planet's surface as NASA's Perseverance rover (partially visible on the left) rolls away.

Elbasyouni was born in Germany, and in 1984, his family returned to his ancestral home in Beit Hanoun, a city on the northeast edge of the Gaza Strip in Palestine.

“A kid coming from west Germany, I saw everybody running away from the Israeli troops. This shocked me,” Elbasyouni told Interesting Engineering (IE).

At school “we studied most of the year in a shed that had no walls,” he remembers.

Elbasyouni has always had a flair for engineering since he was a kid; even after being raised amidst one of the longest conflicts in the world, he loved mending stuff, like TVs, antennas, Atari games, and stereos at home.

“When I was a little child, I fixed the farm's water pump engine. I've always been fascinated by engineering,” he said.

From Gaza to NASA: Journey of an engineer who helped build Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
Loay Elbasyouni at work.
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He studied in Gaza until high school before moving to the U.S. for further education. And has since returned to his war-torn homeland just once.

When many automotive companies went out of business in early 2012, he switched to working on UAVs, primarily electric airplanes, recalled the engineer.

“I was the main power electronic guy for a company in LA. And that is when we ended up getting a contract from Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) NASA to build the helicopter,” he said.

“I was working on it from the very early stages. I worked on it until we finished the design cycle which wasn't until the end of  2019.”

The NASA Perseverance rover carried Ingenuity, the miniature helicopter, on its journey to Mars. On April 19, 2021, the helicopter conducted its first flight, demonstrating the viability of powered, regulated flight on another planet, in a world first.

Ingenuity was mounted over the Perseverance Mars rover’s belly for the trip to Mars. The tiny robotic coaxial helicopter and related delivery vehicles are all part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

From Gaza to NASA: Journey of an engineer who helped build Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
Illustration depicts Mars Helicopter Ingenuity during a test flight on Mars.

JPL, in collaboration with AeroVironment, Inc., NASA's Ames Research Center, Langley Research Center, Lockheed Martin Space, and SolAero, developed Ingenuity. The 19 inches (49 cm) tall solar-powered helicopter has rotors that span around four feet (121 cm) and spin at about 2,400 rpm.

The helicopter, which was only intended for a 30-day trial, has been such a huge success that it recently took its 37th flight and has remained flightworthy for more than 620 days and counting after its first flight on the Red Planet.

Elbasyouni is now a senior avionics manager with Blue Origin, a privately funded American aerospace manufacturer and sub-orbital spaceflight services company headquartered in Kent, Washington.

In this exclusive interview, Elbasyouni speaks to IE about his life in Palestine, his struggles in getting from Gaza to NASA, and his future plans.

Here are the extracts of a long but inspirational conversation that has been edited for clarity.

IE: Tell us about life in Gaza and the journey to the U.S.

I went to Gaza at the age of five or six. It was a big cultural shock for me. I remember our school was shut down for months during the Gulf War. So we had to kind of make up studying at home all the time. I grew up around a lot of orange and olive trees, and my dad would make us work every day on the farms. There are so many memories; I don’t know where to start or stop. Since I was young, I have always loved fixing things, like TV, antennas, Atari games, stereos, and anything I could get my hands on. And simultaneously working on the farm. I have always had a passion for engineering. I was a few years old when I fixed our water pump engine at the farm. While growing up and studying, I was running even many businesses, I started a shop, and I was engineering clocks, handmade sculpt clocks, and mortar them. I would also do photography. My dad wanted me to be an entrepreneur in case I didn't finish my engineering.

I traveled to the U.S. and submitted applications to numerous universities after completing my high school education in Gaza. And after being accepted, I [did not spend long at] the first university I had planned to attend. I barely spent one semester at Pennsylvania before switching to the University of Kentucky because of the high tuition fees, which made it difficult for me to maintain my academic standing. I put in a lot of effort at Kentucky, making pizza and sandwiches to pay for school.

It was around $7800 per semester. Even working 80 hours per week, I couldn't make ends meet. So I missed a year of school in 2001. I then transferred to the University of Louisville and finished my bachelor's degree two years later. I received my master's degree in electrical engineering from the same university.

IE: How did Ingenuity happen to you? How did your family react?

From Gaza to NASA: Journey of an engineer who helped build Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
Loay Elbasyouni posing with Ingenuity Mars Helicopter prototype.
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During my college years in the U.S., I was quite involved in activism and worked on a variety of environmental issues. I have a strong commitment to environmental causes. Since I believe that a lot of the wars are related to oil, I've kind of determined that I really want to concentrate on things that truly improve the world in order to lessen our reliance on it. So I made the decision to work with alternative energy. My initial project was to improve the gas mileage of cars, and after that, I switched to the energy sector and began producing electric vehicles for GE. I also worked with wind energy. I always asked myself, “are your carbon footprints ... negative?” Therefore, I began doing my part to lessen my carbon footprint as well as (the carbon footprint) of humanity.

When many car manufacturers went out of business in 2012, I shifted to working on UAVs, primarily electric airplanes. In 2013, I was a company's primary power electronics specialist in Los Angeles. And it was at that point [that] JPL NASA awarded us a contract to manufacture the [Ingenuity] helicopter. Therefore, I started working on it fairly early on, in 2013. I worked on it until the design cycle was complete, which wasn't until the end of 2019.

I didn't talk about it much with my family. My brother eventually let it slip that I was involved, and my family was surprised to learn that I was working with NASA. They were very proud of my involvement, especially my father, who is hard to impress.

Some people may think that I only received a fellowship because I am from Gaza, but that is not the case. I had to work hard and take on underpaid jobs to gain experience and build my skills in power electronics and electric propulsion. I've continued to work on that even to this day, and if I had to summarize my career, I'd say, “electrify everything.”

IE: How’s this UAV different from the ones on Earth?

From Gaza to NASA: Journey of an engineer who helped build Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
This graphic shows the general activities the team behind NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter hopes to accomplish on a given test flight on the Red Planet.

For a long time, the concept had been floating around. I'm not sure who deserves credit for it. When I first became involved in the project, it was neither fully funded nor approved by NASA.

Because the project is referred to as a technology demonstrator, the initial question was, "Can we really fly on Mars?" It was really a question of whether we could fly in such a thin atmosphere, which would set this UAV apart from any other UAV on the planet Earth. It's like flying a helicopter in the Himalayas; you don't see much of it to analyze it.

You need air to create lift, and Mars' [atomospheric volume] is about 1% that of Earth's. We had to figure out a way because creating lift means lifting more weight due to the atmospheric pressure on Mars. So you must reason out how to reduce weight while maintaining lift, which means that the prop must be much larger than the helicopter because you must turn and move a lot more air underneath the helicopter to create lift.

The prop had to be significantly larger and faster than a helicopter on Earth. The task was also to make the prop five times the size of a helicopter on Earth while also traveling at a five to six times faster speed. It has 2800 RPM, compared to 500 RPM for the average helicopter on Earth.

To create the Ingenuity helicopter, we had to design every component with efficiency in mind. This included the electronics, body, chassis, and prop, which all had to be lightweight and durable. We used carbon fiber and custom build it. The design process involved finding ways to minimize errors while meeting all requirements. This meant that there was often little margin for error, with most designs allowing for a maximum of 10-20 percent deviation. Despite these challenges, we were able to create a flexible and lightweight design that was able to fly successfully on Mars.

IE: What were some of the other challenges you and your team faced in the making of Ingenuity?

From Gaza to NASA: Journey of an engineer who helped build Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
Loay Elbasyouni and his team.
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Earth is so blessed with all the [radiation] shields around; we literally live under a big giant dome, spheres, protection, layer after layer of layers. The biggest and number one challenge is to design something for space that could fly like a helicopter.

The Ingenuity team faced a number of challenges in designing a helicopter that could fly on Mars, including the need to reduce weight and protect against radiation, the harsh environment on Mars, including low temperatures, and the difficulty of going against the norms at NASA and getting funding and approval.

The prop also had to be much larger and faster than a helicopter on Earth, and the team struggled to control it until we decided to make it autonomous. The challenge was also to make the prop five times larger than the size of a helicopter on Earth, and it would also travel at a five to six times faster speed. It has 2800 RPM, while the average helicopter on Earth is 500 RPM.

I reasoned, why can't we use automotive parts? Automotive parts are extremely dependable. And we might be able to find ways to reduce radiation. And, to be honest, that's probably what helped it become a success. Because of the additional shielding, spacecraft parts weigh approximately five times more than automotive parts. I was like, if we don't do it this way, this thing will never fly on Mars.

Presenting this idea to NASA chief engineers during design reviews was a challenge because it went against their usual practices. They would ask me questions like, "Why are you doing it this way? What is the reliability analysis? How many hours can this motor be tested? Why design something that can only be used for 90 seconds? We need to consider our wants versus our needs."

The third challenge we had to overcome was the environment on Mars. Most electronics usually only work to negative 40 degree Celsius; it's very hard to find electronics that work below such temperatures. And Mars, on the coldest nights, can go as low as -140 degrees Celsius and more.

Thanks to our electronics and design, we made it through the winter months on Mars. Ingenuity was supposed to last only 30 days, from late spring to early summer, but we outlasted it, and NASA forced it to sleep during the winter. All of these components, such as electronics and motor control, were subjected to a harsh environment.

As the lead electrical engineer on the Ingenuity project, I was responsible for designing the motor controller and servo controller, as well as working on the motor control. I collaborated with the JPL and NASA teams to determine the best approach for controlling the motor, which was a key component of the propulsion system. While I don't want to claim sole responsibility for the success of the project, the propulsion motor was an area that I focused on heavily.

We had to demonstrate that it was actually going to be successful. In the design review meetings, NASA officials would be like, “Yeah, I don't know, this thing is not gonna work, blah, blah, blah.., you can't do it this way.”

Here we are; instead of 30 days, we have been on Mars for over 600 days.

IE: What is the fate of Ingenuity in space exploration?

The primary goal of the Ingenuity helicopter was to demonstrate the possibility of flight on Mars. Additionally, it was equipped with various navigation cameras and sensors, including a color camera that took many of the images that have been shared online. To operate, the solar-powered helicopter charged during the day and used energy to keep itself warm at night. The original design allowed for a maximum flight time of 90 seconds and a range of 300 meters.

However, the helicopter has exceeded these parameters and performed exceptionally well. As a result, NASA is now considering sending three more helicopters to Mars to collect samples and is also looking at missions to other planets [and bodies], such as Titan. The success of Ingenuity has opened up new possibilities for exploration, as helicopters can access areas that rovers cannot, such as the bottom of canyons and the top of mountains. It is an exciting advancement for the future of space exploration.

IE: What are your future plans?

From Gaza to NASA: Journey of an engineer who helped build Ingenuity Mars Helicopter
Loay Elbasyouni posing with rocket engines.
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Currently, I am working on rocket engines at Blue Origin, where I am a senior manager in the avionics department. My goal is to find ways to make these engines more efficient through the use of electrical systems.

Throughout my career, I have always focused on improving efficiency in various industries, such as heavy trucks, electric cars, hybrid trucks, wind energy, and electric airplanes. It has been my dream to start my own company, and I am exploring the possibility of doing so.

However, for now, I am focused on my work at Blue Origin, where I am responsible for the avionics of different rocket engines, including those that could potentially be used for a lunar lander like Blue Moon. While I am unable to share specific details about my work due to approval requirements, I can say that I am working on a variety of rocket engines.