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Houston, You Have A Problem by Nigel Roth




Just a few moments ago as I sat down to write, the Ingenuity helicopter took off from the surface of a planet two-hundred-and-ninety-five-million kilometres from my keyboard, flew through the Martian sky for fifty-two seconds and climbed about five meters into the otherworldly sky.


The photos it captured were astonishing, when you consider how far away that actually is, and how we can remotely control the drone from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory headquarters tucked away in the United States somewhere.


And, that patch of orange, dusty land the spacecraft lifted off from and landed back on so precisely, was christened by the historically-aware American NASA team as the Wright Brothers Field, in honor of that other historic first, when Felix du Temple de la Croix, the French innovator and aviator, received the first ever patent for an aeroplane in 1857, his steam-powered monoplane which he flew, maybe for as long as fifty-two seconds, into the air in 1874.


No wait, that can’t be right, because the history-making American’s wouldn’t have got that wrong.


The field Ingenuity knows as home is, of course, named after Alexander Fyodorovich Mozhayskiy, the Russian pioneer, whose one-hundred-foot flight in 1884, with its power-assisted takeoff, was of course the real first as we all now know.


Actually, that wouldn’t make sense either, so I suppose the Wright Brothers Field is more accurately named for the French inventor Clement Ader, who was the first aviator to achieve self-propelled flight in 1890, in his ‘bat-winged’, steam-powered aeroplane.


Hang on now, because that doesn’t compute either. Houston, is everything ok?


I guess what the American NASA team really did was name the field after the illusive Hiram Maxim, whose enormous Maxim Flyer, with its one-hundred-and-four-foot wingspan and double-propellered steam engine, flew at a height of almost five feet in 1894.


But then again, that would be absurd.


No, I'm certain NASA must have named it the Wright Brothers Field after the American Augustus Moore Herring, who flew his compressed-air glider over seventy-feet in 1899, just outside St Joseph, in Michigan.


Or maybe after the naturalised American hero Gustave Whitehead, who flew one of his many steam-powered planes in 1899, and a gasoline-powered plane in 1901 in Fairfield, in Connecticut.


But that still doesn’t seem right, does it.


In fact, I suspect the field must’ve been named for the Reverend Burrell Cannon, whose Ezekiel Airship flew four meters in the air in 1902, or for the German aviator Karl Jatho, who flew his own motorised ‘flat-winged’ airplane continually throughout 1903, at altitudes of over three meters, and sustained flight for around seventy-five meters, and again in 1909 for much longer distances.


Then again, I can’t imagine the American NASA team, who planned the Ingenuity’s first flight so carefully for years, would’ve misnamed a field after the wrong aviation first, would they?


No, it must be that in reality they named it after the New Zealander Richard Pearse, who worked tirelessly from 1899, developing an ultralight aircraft that flew beautifully for a good distance in 1903, before a typically rough landing.


Unfortunately for Pearse, there was no photographic record of his flight, and without the same level of publicity and promotion afforded the lacklustre Wright Brothers, it seems history forgot to record the world's first successful motor-operated airplane, and the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.


Which is why NASA was so keen to capture photos of the red planet, and stream the flight live across the globe, just in case no-one believed them, or made up their own self-propelled history, or swatted away their attempt saying we’d already landed a mechanized object on Mars nearly fifty years ago,


Which we did, on what I’ve now named appropriately, and without the American reimagining of aviation history, the Richard Pearse Field.


Houston, you have a problem with that?



photo by Tom Leishman

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