The Self-Portrait and the Codex on the Flight of Birds are on board Curiosity, the NASA mission that landed on the red planet on 5 August 2012. The unusual history of Leonardo’s trip to Mars. Into outer space thanks to television.

It was the most difficult and complex landing ever attempted in the history of planetary exploration, after the Apollo missions to the moon. The Mars Science Laboratory, renamed Curiosity, a rover as large as an automobile, has arrived on Mars, bringing with it a complete laboratory in order to learn whether this planet – a cold, dry desert bombarded by cosmic radiation and barely enveloped by an evanescent atmosphere, so different from our own – possesses, or once possessed, the necessary conditions for developing forms of life. The mission cost two and a half billion dollars and required the efforts of hundreds of people who worked for years.

On board there is a special symbol of universal scientific genius: on a chip placed inside Curiosity is a high-definition copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s self-portrait and his precious Codex on the Flight of Birds, both conserved in Torino’s Royal Library. Leonardo’s Codex is the first scientific treatment of flight, in which he arrives just a step away from completely comprehending and revealing the laws of physics that govern flight.

Leonardo’s voyage to Mars was made possible by a television programme. On 2 May 2011 ‘TGR Leonardo’, the scientific news programme of the Italian state television RAI, arranged an encounter between the Maestro from Vinci and Charles Elachi, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, in Pasadena, the NASA centre run by California Institute of Technology, which for more than half a century has created probes and robotic missions for space exploration.

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The special vault that protects Leonardo’s Codex and the Self-Portrait was specially opened for Elachi. The American scientist was able to leaf through the codex and comment on it in front of the television cameras.
Silvia Rosa-Brusin, anchorwoman of the news programme, introduced the idea of sending Leonardo to Mars on board Curiosity, which at the time was receiving its finishing touches at the JPL.
“Why don't we fly it to Mars?”, she asked Elachi. The Director of the JPL replied that all that was needed to allow Leonardo to take off was a letter from the Italian Space Agency.
And that is how it happened. In July 2011 images of the Codex and the Self-Portrait were loaded onto the chip; in November 2011 Curiosity was launched with Leonardo aboard, and in August 2012 it will land on Mars.
From the Renaissance to the Space Age: a journey that has taken five centuries and 567 million kilometres, at a speed of 16,600 kilometres an hour. Leonardo would have loved it.

And now the scientific adventure of the Mars Science Laboratory has begun, accompanied by the greatest symbol of science and art. Leonardo, insatiably curious, will be alongside Curiosity as she makes her discoveries.

translation by Kim Williams