NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter is preparing for its first flight sometime in the coming week. It will be the first powered flight on Mars, and in honor of the occasion, the little helicopter is carrying a good luck charm. Taped to a cable under the solar panel that sits above Ingenuity’s two pairs of rotor blades, the helicopter has a carefully-prepared swatch of muslin from the wing of the Wright Flyer, the first aircraft ever to make a powered flight here on Earth.
The postage-stamp-sized swatch of fabric came from the spruce-and-muslin biplane’s left wing, and NASA received it as a donation from the Carillon Historical Park in Dayton, Ohio, the hometown of Wilbur and Orville Wright. In 1927, museum restorers replaced the original wing fabric; it was replaced again in 1985, and the fabric you’ll see on the Wright Flyer today in the National Air and Space Museum looks much more like the original fabric than the 1927 version did. Meanwhile, the original muslin fabric was tucked away for occasions just like this.
This wing fabric swatch is the first artifact of aviation history we’ve sent to Mars (not counting all the intrepid robots that became part of aerospace history just by going to Mars), but it’s just the latest episode in a long – and arguably slightly strange – tradition of sending bits of Earth’s first airplane to space.
Astronaut Neil Armstrong carried a fragment of spruce from the Wright Flyer’s fuselage and a small scrap of fabric from one wing to the Moon in 1969. Nearly 30 years later, astronaut and then-U.S. Senator John Glenn carried a swatch of fabric with him aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998. Both astronauts brought their Wright Flyer relics safely back to Earth; Armstrong’s piece is now on display at the Wright Brothers National Museum in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Two small pieces of the historic airplane even made it through the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which killed astronaut Michael Smith (who had custody of the piece of wood and bit of fabric for the trip) and his crewmates. The Wright Flyer relics were recovered and are now on display at the North Carolina Museum of History, and they’re now historic artifacts for two reasons – or, from another perspective, they’re part of two chapters of the same sweeping story of humanity in flight.
The Wright Flyer relic aboard Ingenuity won’t be coming home, of course. There will be a piece of humanity’s first airplane on Mars forever.