On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved powered flight from their Flyer I (1903 Flyer). The location was Kitty Hawk, N.C.
On April 19, 2021, NASA, using remote controls, flew its four-pound helicopter, named Ingenuity, from the surface of the planet Mars some 176 million miles away from Earth.
During the 118 years between the two historic achievements in flight, aviation and space records have been posted thousands of times in the files of flight.
The Mars flight was made in much thinner air compared to Earth’s atmosphere, just 1% the density of Earth’s, which makes it more difficult for the helicopters’ blades, spinning at about 2,500 revolutions per minute, to generate lift.
At 12:30 a.m. Pacific Time, the copter rose to an altitude of 10 feet, where it hovered, buffeted ever so slightly by the wind, turned 96 degrees and then came softly back to the Martian surface in an autonomous flight that lasted just about 30 seconds, the space agency said.
Inside the flight operations center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, engineers broke into applause when the confirmation of the flight arrived, more than three hours spent in the Mars-Earth communique.
The atmosphere in the room turned almost giddy when a still photo shot from the helicopter captured its shadow on the ground, followed by a video of the aircraft’s flight, taken from the nearby Mars rover Perseverance.
“We can now say we’ve flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” MiMi Aung, NASA’s Ingenuity program manager, told the occupants of the flight control room, all masked to protect against the Coronavirus.
“We together flew to Mars, she said. “We together have our Wright brothers moment.”
It was a triumphant add-on to the main part of NASA’s latest Mars mission — the Perseverance rover, a car-sized vehicle that is set to explore a crater that once held water and could yield clues to the history of the planet and whether life ever existed there.
Deciding to build a helicopter that could fly on Mars was a project years in the making and one that was the result of “finding that right line between crazy and innovative,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the science mission directorate said.