Mars, the solar system’s fourth planet, is a cold, craggy, two-mooned world named for the Roman God of war, which is fitting considering its rusty red surface gives it a blood-stained hue. Located some 293 million miles from Earth, Mars — with its thin atmosphere, colossal canyons, and towering Olympus Mons volcano — has long mystified humanity. But today, April 19, 2021, a powerful yet petite helicopter briefly hovered above the Red Planet’s surface, taking what could be a paradigm-shifting step toward unfurling the mysteries of Mars.
This first flight of Ingenuity — a 4-pound, solar-powered helicopter built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) — not only serves as the first controlled and powered flight on Mars, but also the first such flight on any planet beyond Earth. That has led JPL to hail Ingenuity’s initial 39-second test as a “Wright brothers moment.”
Hitching a ride to Mars
The 19-inch-tall Ingenuity chopper made its way to Mars fastened to the belly of NASA’s latest rover, Perseverance, which is built to gather geological data, search for signs of ancient life, and even test some of the technologies needed to sustain a future human presence on Mars. On February 18, 2021, both vehicles safely touched down in Mars’ Jezero Crater.
With Ingenuity’s first flight now checked off the list, NASA plans to keep pushing the helicopter’s limits over the next few weeks, carrying out longer and more ambitious flights. But no matter what happens to Ingenuity from here on out, it has already proven that controlled powered flight on another world is really possible. And, among other tasks, future versions of such a craft might aerially survey the Red Planet’s rocky terrain, helping to chart safe paths for rovers — and perhaps, one day, even astronauts.
NASA, however, is not only concerned with this first flight on Mars. To honor the first airplane to fly on Earth, Ingenuity’s team fastened a small swatch of fabric from the original 1903 Wright Flyer to the underside of the helicopter’s solar panel. And on April 19, 2021, three days after Wilbur Wright’s 154th birthday, that relic of humanity’s first airplane lifted off from Mars.
“I’m really grateful NASA had the foresight to pay homage to Wilbur and Orville,” Stephen Wright, the Wright brothers’ great-grandnephew, tells Astronomy. “I know that they would be absolutely thrilled to know that 118 years after their discovery, NASA — this sophisticated organization sending machines to other planets — still understands the Wright brothers did the pioneering work to allow their work to happen. NASA hasn’t forgotten where they came from, so to speak.”
But where did the fabric from the original Wright Flyer come from? And how did it ultimately make its way to Mars? That’s a story all its own.
From Dayton, Ohio, to Jezero Crater, Mars
Dayton stands near the southwest corner of Ohio, in the heart of Middle America. And although it is only a midsize city, it has a giant history. Located some 300 miles southeast of Chicago and 50 miles north of Cincinnati, this rustbelt city with a modest skyline, diminished population, and empty high-rise buildings is easy to dismiss.
But beneath Dayton’s rough veneer lies an extraordinary story of innovation. The Wright brothers, two West Dayton bicycle makers, are certainly the city’s most famous sons. But Dayton gave the world far more than the airplane, with its community also providing advancements in trains, canals, and automobiles.
In the 1940s, in an effort to preserve Dayton’s rich transportation history, industrialist and philanthropist Edward Deeds began work on a transportation-themed museum: Carillon Park. In preparation, Deeds asked Orville Wright, who was then in his seventies, to help him make the Wright brothers’ story a centerpiece of the new attraction.
“Orville Wright was very shy, reserved,” says Alex Heckman, vice president for museum operations at Carillon Historical Park, “so he didn’t have a particularly large circle of close friends. But one of his best friends, certainly in later years, was Edward Deeds. Initially, Deeds approached Orville about building a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer for Carillon Park.”
Orville was supportive of Deeds’s Wright Flyer replica concept. But after several days of thought, Orville returned to Deeds with a landmark idea, one that would preserve the brothers’ most significant airplane and, as an unforeseen byproduct, enliven future missions to space.
The 1905 Wright Flyer III — not the 1903 Wright Flyer — is the world’s first practical airplane. At Huffman Prairie Flying Field, a cow pasture 8 miles northeast of Dayton, the plane would take off and land, perform figure eights, and fly so long (some 40 minutes) that it ran out of gas. Orville considered this version on the Wright Flyer — the brothers’ Dayton Flyer, so to speak — to be their most important contribution to aeronautics, and that’s why he decided to gift the airplane to Carillon Park.
The only problem: First, he had to find the parts.
While the 1905 Wright Flyer III airframe was safely in storage, many of the plane’s components were strewn across the globe. In 1908, in preparation for their famous first public flights at Hunaudières Racecourse near Le Mans, France, the brothers’ had returned to Kitty Hawk with the Wright Flyer III. “They pulled the airframe and modified it to meet the Army’s requirements to carry both pilot and passenger,” says Heckman. “They modified the controls, so they were sitting upright, no longer flying prone. It was actually the first plane to carry more than one person.”
After these 1908 flights, the brothers’ built a refined version of their 1905 Flyer called the Wright Model A. They then stored the 1905 Wright Flyer III in their Kitty Hawk hangar — a weathered wooden structure that rose like a southwest Ohio barn from the sands of North Carolina. But after the Wright brothers became world famous, souvenir hunters started busting into the hangar to steal parts from the Wright Flyer III. So, in order to get the pieces needed to rebuild the plane for Carillon Park, Orville had to offer the souvenir hunters some sort of incentive.
He had a thought: When the 1903 Wright Flyer was being restored, the plane’s “Pride of the West” muslin fabric was removed, as were some small wooden components. Orville still possessed both the fabric and the components. “He was able to acquire the pieces and parts of the  Wright Flyer III from the souvenir hunters in exchange for a piece of fabric and wood from the 1903 Flyer,” says Heckman, “A letter of authentication was also provided from Orville Wright himself.”
After retrieving the parts of the 1905 Flyer components he required, Orville helped restore the plane for Carillon Park. He also helped design Wright Hall, the building where the plane is still on display today. But after the project was completed, he was left with a number of additional ungifted pieces of 1903 Wright Flyer ephemera.
Perhaps, one day, someone would find a use for them.
The Wright Flyer ventures to space
On January 30, 1948, Orville died of a heart attack. (In fact, restoring the 1905 Wright Flyer III for Carillon Park was the last project of humanity’s first pilot.) Some 20 years later, astronaut Neil Armstrong — a native of Wapakoneta, Ohio, a small city 60 miles north of Dayton — finally found a use for Orville’s leftover 1903 Wright Flyer memorabilia. In July 1969, Armstrong carried a small piece of wood and a swatch of fabric from the original Wright Flyer aboard Apollo 11, the mission that saw humanity walk on the Moon for the very first time.
Then, nearly 30 years after Apollo 11, John Glenn — a native of New Concord, Ohio, located 140 miles east of Dayton — followed Armstrong’s lead. Glenn carried another piece of fabric from the 1903 Wright Flyer aboard space shuttle Discovery. During this October 1998 shuttle trip, Glenn, who was age 77 at the time, became the oldest human to venture into space.
“John Glenn returned his piece in a ceremony at Carillon Historical Park on December 17, 1998,” says Gwen Haney, community collections manager at Carillon Historical Park. “It marked the 95th anniversary of flight.”
This tradition of Wright Flyer relics tagging along on boundary-pushing space missions continued today with Ingenuity’s flight. But for this mission, Haney had to find a piece of 1903 Wright Flyer ephemera that wouldn’t weigh down the 4-pound helicopter as it attempted to hover above Mars, whose atmosphere is only 1 percent as dense as Earth’s.
“We have a large collection of material from when Orville was trying to get the pieces of the Wright Flyer III back,” says Haney. “[The sample on Ingenuity] is slightly discolored with age, but in very good condition. Knowing NASA wanted something the size of a postage stamp, I cut a little extra, just in case they needed a little excess fabric for testing purposes.”
It turns out that was a good move.
“Anything you fly has to be sterilized, so we had to cut off a little Wright Flyer fabric sample, run it through an autoclave, and make sure it didn’t burn up before we put the larger fabric piece in the autoclave,” says Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer at JPL. “Everything we send into space has to be checked for outgassing, so it doesn’t contaminate something else. So, you heat it to address the contamination control problem — to dry up the gas — but it also kills bugs, which addresses the planetary protection problem. Remember: This is an astrobiological mission. NASA is looking for signs of past life. The last thing you want is to go to Mars, bring back spores you had taken from Earth, then think they’re martian spores.”
The painstaking care placed into sterilizing one tiny patch of timeworn 1903 Wright Flyer fabric is emblematic of the painstaking care put into every aspect of the Ingenuity mission over the past 6 years. Ingenuity’s flight date had to be bumped twice in recent weeks before NASA saw success today. But all the while, the entire Ingenuity team was channeling the spirit of the Wright brothers, the Dayton pioneers who, after 6 years of tireless work and countless setbacks, finally took flight in 1903.
“This is a Wright brothers moment,” says Amanda Wright Lane, the Wright brothers’ great-grandniece. “When I first thought about the name of the rover, Perseverance, and the name of the little helicopter, Ingenuity, all I could think about was Uncle Orv and Uncle Wil. I thought, ‘Isn’t it appropriate that, in some way, they are a part of this mission?’ They’ve always been a part of those ideas — perseverance, ingenuity. Always.”
You can watch NASA’s press conference on Ingenuity’s historic first flight today directly below.