If you haven’t been following the
dog-and-pony pony-and-dog show taking place on Mars the last couple of months, you might want to break out the telescope. Not that you’ll be able to see a car-sized rover or a toy-sized helicopter from millions of miles away. But you can see Mars itself, and then you can imagine “Percy” and “Ginny” sniffing around the red dirt and rocks up there. They’re just sampling things to see if Mars can roll out the welcome mat to humans someday.
The rover “Perseverance” is the pony in this show; “Ingenuity” the dog. I want to talk about the dog. Last July Percy hitched a nine-month ride to Mars, launching from Florida’s Cape Canaveral aboard a massive Atlas V rocket. Little Ginny hitched a ride on Percy; she the steadfast little soldier clinging to the rover’s underbelly. Considering Ginny measures only a few feet in all dimensions, it must’ve been a hang-on-for-dear-life E-ticket kind of adventure.
I’d love to make this a children’s story, but Ginny is anything but soft and cuddly. Have a look. She’s about as cute as a wasp. Consider Martian atmosphere is only 1/100th as dense as that of Earth, which means Ginny has virtually nothing to grab onto to sustain flight. But she whirls at five times the rate of a regular helicopter (2,400 rpm!), and then she rises. Product safety warning: don’t go anywhere near Ginny’s rotor blades.
Ten days ago Ginny lifted off Mars to a skyscraping height of ten feet. Then she hovered briefly before rotating about ninety degrees, kind of just observing the Mars-scape. Finally, she landed. The whole exercise lasted less than forty seconds. Big deal, right? Well, that little maneuver qualified Ginny as “the first powered controlled flight by an aircraft on a planet besides Earth”. Way to go, little wasp. You just reserved a spot in the Smithsonian after you return home.
When I picture Ginny clinging to the rover Percy, then hurtling through outer space for months on end, my middle-aged mind recalled the old Thunderbirds television show. Thunderbirds featured the Tracy family (marionettes!) and their fleet of wicked-cool space vehicles. The five Thunderbirds included a giant green supersonic carrier (“Thunderbird Two”), whose massive belly carried a yellow utility submersible (“Thunderbird Four”). Kind of like Percy carried Ginny. Trust me young(er) readers, Thunderbirds was awesome television in the 1960s… even if it was just puppets getting their strings pulled.
I’ve ridden in a helicopter exactly once in my life, on our honeymoon over the Napali Coast on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I turned to my bride mid-flight and probably uttered some not-so-nice words as I remembered how much I dislike heights. The glass of champagne beforehand certainly helped. For me, the fear has always been a toss-up between vertigo (physical) or the idea that terra firma is far, far below me (mental). No matter the reason, heights just aren’t my cup of tea.
My acrophobia probably goes back to my first ride on a Ferris Wheel, with adolescent nightmares of slipping through the metal lap bar and taking an unplanned skydive. Or ski lifts, where a little bit of fiddling with the lap bar latch could mean the end of everything. Parasailing? (No). Hang-gliding? (Never). Hot-air balloons? (Why even ask?). Sorry – airplanes aside, and only the bigger ones mind you – I prefer my thrills securely grounded.
For all the recent broadcast news on Percy and Ginny, I can’t seem to find the part of the story where Ginny returns to Percy, who then returns to the Atlas V rocket, who then returns to Earth. I’m looking for the part about splashdowns and photo ops and ticker-tape parades – the happy-ending kind of stuff. My earlier comment about a spot in the Smithsonian may have been a little premature (can you say, “Ginny replica”?). Note to reader: if you do decide to make this a children’s story you might want to edit things a bit. Just say our little pony and dog are now asleep on Mars, waiting for their human friends to get there someday. It sounds much better than, “we just left them there”.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.