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Rock Climbing on Mars: A Simulation

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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, 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.

Cover photo: Trent Tresch dry-tooling in the Pacific Spaceflight Mark VII pressure suit. 

What was climbing in a spacesuit like?

Trent Tresch: 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.

Video: Tresch ascends a rope in an IVA spacesuit in the name of testing.

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 to climb?

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 your suit design?

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!