The road to climb­ing on Mars.


IF YOU LIVE IN the Port­land, Ore­gon, area, you may have been sur­prised as you walked along the coast last Au­gust to see an as­tro­naut dry-tool­ing up a cliff. “Why are you do­ing that?” you might have asked, to which he would have replied, “Test­ing”—namely, test­ing to see how well his suit would per­form on ex­trater­res­trial bod­ies like Mars. Many ex­ist­ing space­suits are cum­ber­some, com­pli­cat­ing sur­face ex­plo­ration of other plan­ets. En­ter Trent Tresch, an in­no­va­tor, ex­plorer, and climber work­ing with the open-source think tank Pa­cific Space­flight ( pacific­space­, whose goal is to cre­ate cheap, light­weight, ma­neu­ver­able space­suits. (Dr. Cameron Smith founded Pa­cific Space­flight in 2013; Tresch joined the team in 2016.) We talked with Tresch about what it would be like to climb in space.

What was climb­ing ina space suit like?

It’s in­tense. Within the first few feet, your heart is beat­ing out of your chest and you’re sweat­ing pro­fusely, as you have a less effective coolant sys­tem in­side the suit as com­pared to the open air. Fin­gers have al­most no grip, and the gloves don’t al­low for the same move­ment and fric­tion as bare hands. When test­ing, we got out Cameron [Smith’s] old ice axes. It was eas­ier to grasp the tools and bal­ance ver­sus climb­ing with your hands.

Grav­ity on Mars is about 62 per­cent lower than on Earth—how would that change climb­ing there?

If you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, you’d be about 38 pounds on Mars. Some of the strain we ex­pe­ri­enced on our Earth climbs could be negated when con­sid­er­ing weight, but within the suit there is the pres­sure that main­tains a liv­able at­mos­phere. There would still be dif­fi­culty mov­ing around, as your body must fight that re­straint.

When might an as­tro­naut need to­climb?

Dur­ing ex­plo­ration of alien en­vi­ron­ments. We have all seen video of the Apollo-era as­tro­nauts on the moon. We would be do­ing the same on Mars, mostly col­lect­ing sam­ples and con­duct­ing re­search. We bet a lot of early Mars climb­ing will be like nine­teenth-cen­tury moun­taineer­ing—scram­bling/third class/5.0 stuff where ro­bots can’t go, or aid climb­ing with some crazy rack of tools.

What did you learn from your test­ing?

We learned about the sur­face-level dif­fi­cul­ties. This was the first of many fu­ture climbs, so we started build­ing a base-level un­der­stand­ing. Some­thing NASA and other agen­cies have been work­ing on for a long time is joint mo­bil­ity. I per­son­ally like the idea of us­ing hard suits to tackle the is­sue, since you can put higher pres­sures in them but still move them eas­ily. In soft suits, usu­ally, higher pres­sure makes it harder to ma­neu­ver. The down­side of hard suits is that they’re heavy and ex­pen­sive, and re­quire you to move in cer­tain ways to ac­com­mo­date the awk­ward joints and bear­ings. (Check out “space­suit bal­let” on YouTube.) At the mo­ment, we’re play­ing around with the idea of hy­brid suits—part hard, part soft.

Is climb­ing a novel ap­proach to test­ing the ma­neu­ver­abil­ity of your­suit­de­sign?

Right now, our fo­cus is on IVA space­suits (in­side a space vehicle), but we will be mov­ing to EVA (out­side a space vehicle) af­ter we have a pi­lot fly our suits to the Arm­strong Line (63,000 feet) in a hot-air bal­loon. Climb­ing is a novel way to test the suits be­cause most suits are used for flights only—to leave and reen­ter the at­mos­phere—or for space­walks. The suits that will be key to ex­plo­ration will be able to han­dle any­thing: hik­ing, climb­ing, dust, and ice.

What’ s the rock like on mars?

From my lim­ited ge­ol­ogy back­ground, I un­der­stand that there’s sand­stone, shale, basalt, and more. I think the best climbs would be on colum­nar basalt, as a lot of Mars is pretty dusty; ei­ther that or moun­taineer­ing. There are prob­a­bly also some killer me­te­oroids we could go boul­der­ing on!


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