Soaring gracefully down to Earth from a balloon floating 101,000 feet high
above Oregon, a NASA prototype of an airplane that someday may fly over
Mars successfully completed a high-altitude flight test this week.

Conducted at Oregon’s Tillamook airport by the Kitty Hawk 3 project at NASA
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, the test was designed to validate
the aerodynamic performance of the prototype. Nicknamed “Orville” after
one of the famed Wright brothers who first flew on Dec. 17, 1903, the NASA
731 glider was dropped from a helium-filled balloon that towed it up to an
altitude of 101,000 feet – the highest ever for such a test – before
releasing it. Engineers and scientists hailed the test as a great success.

“It was a great flight and everything went really well. It appears that we
realized all of our test objectives,” exclaimed a jubilant Andy Gonzales,
an Ames aerospace engineer who served as the flight test director.
Low-altitude tests of NASA 729, another prototype called “Wilbur,” were
conducted last month at Ames.

“Mars has always fascinated people,” said Larry Lemke, an aerospace
engineer at NASA Ames who serves as Ames’ project manager for advanced Mars
mobility concepts, which include airplanes as well as other systems.
“Every time we send a mission up there, we come back with fascinating

According to Lemke, a Mars airplane is an idea whose time has come. “The
Mars airplane is an idea that has been around for about 25 years, and over
the past five years or so, it has been growing in popularity,” he said. “I
think a Mars airplane will play a role in exploring the Red Planet.”

Conventional in appearance, the Mars airplane concept developed by Ames
engineers features a long, straight wing and twin tails in the rear. The
remote-controlled glider tested in Oregon featured an approximately
four-foot-long fuselage and an eight-foot wing span.

“The flying we have successfully completed in Oregon is very similar to the
flying that we will be doing over Mars during a productive exploration
mission,” Lemke said. “One unique aspect of flying a Mars mission with an
airplane is that it must be constructed in a fold-up configuration in order
to fit inside a spacecraft.”

In its future configuration for Mars, the aircraft is expected to have its
own propeller propulsion system capable of operating in the Mars
atmosphere, which is comprised mostly of carbon dioxide. It will also
carry a variety of sophisticated instruments to observe and conduct science

“The possibility of life on Mars is a very hot topic and an interesting
question, so I’m sure you will find instruments on board that are designed
to find signs of water on Mars, which is necessary for life,” Lemke said.

“In addition, we would have a large array of cameras on the airplane to be
able to see large areas of the Mars terrain in very high resolution,” Lemke
said. He said the cameras aboard the aircraft would be so precise, they
could see objects on Mars as small as the size of a quarter. “I think the
images will be stunning,” he said. “During a Mars airplane mission, we will
be able to view the planet at very close proximity and this will convey to
the public that there is a real planet there, not just an abstract.”

“Our test flight at Tillamook airport showed the airplane’s flight was very
smooth and stable which makes for a good platform for science instruments,”
said Gonzales.

Ames engineers predict the next few years will be challenging, as they
prepare for a potential mission to Mars. “We will be expanding the envelope
and developing a much more complex aircraft for exploring Mars,” Lemke
said. The next step will be to develop a Mars airplane model with folding
wings and later, one with a propeller propulsion system.

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scheduled for distribution via satellite on NASA Television on August 14,
2001. Because feed times and the schedule are subject to change, please
check the NASA TV video file line-up on the web at

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