It’s hard to imagine that a flight lasting a mere 39 seconds could represent monumental scientific achievement, but that was the reaction — and celebration — last week when the experimental helicopter known as Ingenuity lifted off the surface of Mars.
In yet another milestone for the NASA space program, the helicopter achieved what a team of engineers and scientists had spent six years working on: the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.
NASA officials hailed it as the space equivalent of a “Wright brothers moment” and for good reason. The ability to use powered helicopters — or perhaps drones in the future — to explore a planet’s surface would be an invaluable aid in examining difficult or dangerous places, or to serve as a scout for the day when astronauts arrive.
It’s an amazing accomplishment in the ongoing exploration of space that pays tribute to the relentless work of NASA scientists. The helicopter’s short flight took years of engineering to overcome the obstacles present on Mars. Because the planet’s atmosphere is just 1% the density of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter with rotor blades that could spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute — five times faster than on Earth. And it had to be light enough to gain lift, sturdy enough to withstand Martian wind, and capable of relying on a solar panel to recharge batteries while surviving night temperatures of minus-130 degrees Farenheit.
Even the preprogrammed first flight tested the patience of NASA officials who had to wait an agonizing three hours before the photos and video of the helicopter’s successful flight made their way 178 million miles from Mars to Earth. When they arrived, the cheers went up from scientists around the world for what NASA had accomplished.
This is American ingenuity and inventiveness at its finest, qualities the country’s space program has nurtured from its earliest days a half-century ago. Critics may question the amount of money spent on space exploration — the helicopter alone cost $85 million — but the tangible results of scientific study and engineering are part of our everyday lives.
The race to space helped launch the development of personal computers and laptops; the technology used for MRIs, CAT scans and LASIK eye surgery; the computer mouse; scratch-resistant lenses; and even the cameras used in cellphones.
Exploring space required the launch of numerous satellites that today provide us with the GPS systems in our cars and phones, the weather forecasting technology that gives advance warning of dangerous storms, and the ability to communicate quickly with someone thousands of miles away.
The flight of Ingenuity may have been short, but its inspiration is great and its promise for further advances is immeasurable.
— Tribune News Service