How the Wright Brothers Flew All the Way to Mars
An inspiring story of aviation success
In 1878, Milton Wright, father of Orville and Wilbur Wright, purchased a cork, paper, and bamboo model helicopter powered by rubber bands for his boys. Inspired by the toy, Orville and Wilbur would go on to pursue a lifelong interest in flying. In 1889, the brothers started their own newspaper, and in 1892 they started their own bicycle shop, the Wright Cycle Exchange (later renamed to Wright Cycle Company), where they repaired and sold bicycles of their own design (history.com).
Always interested in pushing their ingenuity further, the brothers dove deep into aviation research, specifically human flight, by 1899. At one point, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institute asking for more information after they had read all of the literature on the topic available to them (nps.gov).
“I have been interested in the problem of mechanical and human flight ever since as a boy I constructed a number of bats of various sizes after the style of Cayley’s and Penaud’s machines. My observations since have only convinced me more firmly that human flight is possible and practicable. It is only a question of knowledge and skill just as in all acrobatic feats…I wish to avail myself of all that is already known and then if possible add my mite to help on the future workers who will attain final success.” — Wilbur Wright (1899).
Little did Wilbur know just how much of an impact he would have on said final success.
The Path to Success
The two began experimenting with their own designs in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1900. The town of Kitty Hawk provided the right wind conditions for proper testing of their kites and glider. After the tests of their 1901 glider were unsuccessful, Orville went on to say that “Not within a thousand years would man ever fly.”
During the next year, the brothers would conduct tests in wind tunnels that allowed them to refine their designs and they successfully completed between 700 and 1,000 tests of their 1902 glider. After the achievements of their glider, they set their sights on powered flight.
Within a single year, 1903, the brothers built a more accurate wind tunnel and designed and assembled their first motorized aircraft with the help of their mechanic, Charles Taylor. On December 14, 1903, the brothers would make their first attempts at flying the newly assembled Wright Flyer, but to no avail. They would see success just three days later, December 17, 1903; when the two completed the first controlled flight of a powered heavier than air flying machine the world had ever seen. They had invented and flown the world’s first airplane 998 years ahead of Orville’s prediction (wright.edu).
The achievements of the Wright brothers would go on to change how humans traveled around the planet for the next 118 years, with airplanes becoming increasingly popular in the 1950s and used commonly through the present day (airandspace.si.edu).
By October 14, 1947, humans were already taking airplanes to the extreme when U.S. Air Force captain Chuck Yeager became the first to break the sound barrier, traveling at more than 662mph in the X-1 aircraft at 40,000 feet (history.com). 14 years later, on April 12, 1961, Russia took the idea of human flight to new heights as cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach space onboard the Vostok 1 spacecraft (nasa.gov). In just 44 years, we went from flying the first airplane to breaking the sound barrier and putting our first human in orbit. December 2003 marked the 100th anniversary of the historical Wright brothers flight that put it all in motion.
A Voyage to the Red Planet
Fast forward to July 30, 2020, when NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida onboard a ULA Atlas V rocket (mars.nasa.gov). The rover made its way to Mars and successfully landed on the red planet on February 18, 2021 (space.com). Attached to Perseverance was a small helicopter drone that would be released from the rover on April 3, 2021 (NASA JPL Twitter).
That helicopter‘s name is Ingenuity, and on Monday, April 19, 2021, it became the first craft to achieve powered flight on another planet (twitter.com/NASA). Fittingly, it includes a small piece of fabric from the Wright Flyer under its solar panels. Ingenuity was the first to set flight on another planet, and it did so while carrying part of the first powered airplane to fly on Earth, a heartwarming homage to its predecessors (smithsonianmag.com).
“The Wright brothers showed that powered flight in Earth’s atmosphere was possible, using an experimental aircraft. With Ingenuity, we’re trying to do the same for Mars.” — Håvard Grip, Ingenuity’s chief pilot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (2021) (nasa.gov).
Not only did Orville and Wilbur fly on Earth and change history forever, they made it all the way to Mars.
This article is dedicated to David Andrew Taylor.