First Man on Mars: Leonardo da Vinci

His portrait is there, anyway, thanks to Italian state TV and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

One of the charms of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds, on view through October 22, 2013 at the National Air and Space Museum, is the Renaissance man’s enthusiasm for the invention of a flying machine:

It will make the first flight this great bird
filling the universe with awe
filling all writings with its frame
and eternal glory to the next where it was born.

That prediction reached across five centuries to captivate Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This video clip recounts how Elachi made the decision, at the urging of a documentarian from Italian state TV, to send digital copies of da Vinci’s portrait and the Codex to Mars on the Curiosity rover.

Later, Elachi found that da Vinci had anticipated modern spacecraft design. Leonardo’s drawing (below) of a vehicle that would protect soldiers moving onto a battlefield—a Renaissance Humvee, if you will—bears a resemblance, Elachi points out, to the conveyance that brought Curiosity on the last part of its journey.

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