National Post (Latest Edition)

With Ingenuity test, Wright brothers’ plane flies again on Mars

FABRIC FROM FIRST EARTH FLIGHT ABOARD MARS CRAFT

- Chris Knight

The world’s most travelled aircraft has just conquered another planet. When the Ingenuity helicopter made its first brief test flight on the surface of Mars, it carried within its tiny fuselage a piece of fabric, no bigger than a postage stamp. The cloth was part of the covering of the lower left wing of the Flyer, the Wright brothers aircraft that first flew in North Carolina, 118 years ago.

“I can’t believe this thing is sitting on Mars,” marvels Brady Kress, president and CEO of Dayton History, and keeper of that historic fabric.

He explained that NASA reached out to Dayton History with the request when they were designing Ingenuity. The space agency needed something small and lightweigh­t — the entire helicopter weighs just 1.8 kilos on Earth, about as much as a small rabbit. And it had to be sterile. “They didn’t want to affect the surface of Mars with anything,” Kress explains.

That second requiremen­t gave him pause. The wing covering had spent years stored in less than cleanroom conditions, in the Wright brothers’ shed on Hawthorn street in Dayton, Ohio, near the banks of the

Great Miami River. It spent time underwater during a devastatin­g flood in 1913. Still, NASA gave it the green light to fly.

Dayton History has on display another scrap of fabric that flew with John Glenn aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. Another piece that flew on Challenger in 1986 was recovered after the ship exploded. And visitors to the Smithsonia­n in Washington, D.C., can see a piece that was given to Neil Armstrong by the Wright family in 1969, and flew to the moon aboard Apollo 11.

The Smithsonia­n also has the Wright Flyer on display, but without the original fabric wing covering. That was kept by Orville Wright, who sold off portions of it in the 1940s to fund a restoratio­n effort on another of the Wright brothers’ early aircraft. “There are pieces of it floating around out there,” says Kress.

Dayton History, which works closely with the Wright family and holds the largest collection of Wright brothers artifacts in the world, is the custodian of what remains of the muslin fabric. It’s a tightly woven cotton cloth known as “Pride of the West,” and advertised at the time for use in making “ladies’ undergarme­nts.”

No one thought to send a piece of the Flyer on the ultimate journey past the edge of the solar system on one of the Pioneer or Voyager probes in the 1970s. But another destinatio­n for the historic plane could be Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. NASA has plans to send a helicopter there, launching in 2026 and arriving at the icy moon in 2034.

The Dragonfly helicopter should have an easier time taking to the air. Whereas Mars’s carbon dioxide atmosphere is only one per cent as thick as Earth’s, Titan’s nitrogen-methane mix has 1.5 times the pressure, and just 14 per cent of the gravity. (Mars gravity is 38 per cent of Earth’s.)

Kress says NASA has yet to approach him for another swatch. And he cautions: “They’re not making any more of this fabric, so we’re prudent.” But he’s open to the idea that the Flyer could yet fly on another world. The first flight may have been over a century ago on a windswept hill near coastal Kitty Hawk, N.C. But the Wright brothers’ plane is still very much aloft.

 ?? HANDOUT/NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS/ASU/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? NASA’S Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is caught by cameras aboard NASA’S Perseveran­ce Mars rover
after its first flight Monday, marking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.
HANDOUT/NASA/JPL-CALTECH/MSSS/ASU/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES NASA’S Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is caught by cameras aboard NASA’S Perseveran­ce Mars rover after its first flight Monday, marking the first powered, controlled flight on another planet.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada