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Illinois ECE alumna oversees NASA's Ingenuity helicopter mission

4/9/2021

Joseph Park, Illinois ECE

Illinois ECE MiMi Aung (BSEE '88, MS '90) works as the project manager for NASA's Ingenuity helicopter. Photo credit to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Illinois ECE MiMi Aung (BSEE '88, MS '90) works as the project manager for NASA's Ingenuity helicopter. Photo credit to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Illinois ECE alumna MiMi Aung (BSEE '88, MS '90) is overseeing the operations for NASA's Ingenuity helicopter, which recently landed on Mars along with the Perseverance Rover. Once the helicopter detaches, it will conduct several test flights on the surface, marking the first powered flights on another planet.

Aung recently interviewed with Discover Magazine and discussed her journey from Burma to the University of Illinois to NASA.

Aung grew up in Burma until she was 11 years old, from which she moved to Malaysia with her parents. At the age of 16, Aung's parents sent her to the United States to pursue her education. Aung had found her lifelong passion in math. In her junior year at the University of Illinois, Aung took a class on signal processing communications and probability and statistics, which revealed what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

Following her master's degree, Aung was inspired by one of her professors to work at The Deep Space Network in the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). While Aung worked there modeling signals, her mentor Ernie Stone connected her with a project called Starlink. 

Although Starlink was formally canceled in 2011, Aung drew upon that experience when she became the Ingenuity helicopter project manager.

"In the team meetings, I’d say things like, "We can't take it for granted. This looks good, but what's the next thing? What's the next thing after that?" And I knew we must communicate clearly," said Aung in the interview.

"We can't be like mumbo-jumbo. We have to talk to the Mars 2020 [Perseverance rover] folks who are going to accommodate the helicopter. [NASA] Headquarters has to know what we’re doing. Our management has to know. Our team has to know."

To read the full interview, check out the article on Discover Magazine.

Additional Ingenuity Resources: