Last week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced a new component of the plan to send humans to Mars.
In 2004, President Bush announced a new vision for space exploration, including the colonization of the moon and the eventual human landing on Mars. In a press conference that year, attended by NASA leader Sean O'Keefe and numerous veteran space travelers, Bush laid out his plan. â€œTwo centuries ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis to explore the new lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. They made that journey in the spirit of discovery, to learn the potential of vast new territory, and to chart a way for others to follow.
â€œAmerica has ventured forth into space for the same reasons. We have undertaken space travel because the desire to explore and understand is part of our character.â€
As scientists begin planning for extended stays on other worlds, unexpected challenges have arisen. One in particular has intrigued NASA scientist David Smith — the need to find a fast, efficient means for traversing the surface of the planet. Vehicles will be necessary, but as space on interplanetary missions will be severely limited, lower tech alternatives must be developed for personal mobility. â€œWe can’t bring more than one larger personnel transport, and we’ll be lucky if have room for even one ATV-style machine,â€ says Smith. â€œWe need a way for astronauts to get around the surface of the planet quickly — and that method must account for the deep dust that covers much of the surface — and the varied terrain. Up large hills, down significant slopes into craters, NASA will need to deal with all of it.â€
As part of the initial planning phase, NASA personnel were asked to submit proposals for projects designed to address highly specific needs of the Mars mission. Smith, an avid cross-country skier growing up in Minnesota, presented the idea of using skis as a light-weight and compact means of personal transport on Mars.
â€œIt makes sense. This is why skis were invented in the first place. On skis, a skilled operator will be able to negotiate the varied terrain of Mars.
Smith’s proposal was approved. He is now Project Director of the Mars Ski Transport (MAST) initiative. The MAST team faces significant challenges. As the surface of Mars is far more abrasive than snow, the team must create a specialized base material that is extremely hard and durable, yet maintains gliding properties. The team is currently experimenting with a number of alloys, as well as synthetic fibers.
The skis will be the size of lightweight backcountry equipment and will be waxless. â€œSurveys of current astronauts have shown that lighter weight, faster equipment would be preferable,â€ explains Chief Scientist Margaret Dreamski. â€œBut the rugged terrain demands a sturdier ski with edging capabilities. We aren’t going to have a Pisten Bully up there laying out corduroy for these guys. And they will have to deal with waxless. We just don’t have the time or resources to develop waxes for Mars.â€
In addition to the 15 person NASA staff, MAST is working with a number of independent consultants, including several prominent members of the ski industry and at least one former World Cup skier.
â€œWe needed input from people who have spent their lives developing ski technology and competing in the sport,â€ says Smith, who now lives and works in Florida at NASA headquarters. â€œNASA knows very little about cross-country skiing. My colleagues give me a hard time whenever I head out on my rollerskis during lunch.â€
â€œThere is no room for error in space. We can’t have a guy take a pair of skis out on Mars, not like them, and bring them back asking for a little more kick. So we went to Norway and have contracted with ski specialists.â€
One of these specialists is Bjorn Andersen, an engineer who has been directly involved in the design and manufacture of the fastest skis in the world. â€œIf I know anything,â€ Andersen told FasterSkier, I know ski construction.â€ The Norweigan is excited to be part of the project: â€œalthough this is a new challenge for me, I don’t think it is as radical as it seems — just another step along the natural progression of the development of ski equipment. Look at where we were 20 years ago. We need to look ahead another 20 years in terms of materials and performance, and swap Lillehammer for Mars.â€
Andersen’s dream of ski racing at the highest level was dashed when he suffered a freak fishing accident involving an angry sturgeon and vacuum pump. â€œI never had the opportunity to reach my own goals, so now I dedicate my life to others reaching their own. And I don’t see any reason that the equipment should be limited to wider, heavier skis — once a permanent base is established, astronauts will need a way to â€˜get around town.’ High performance skate skis would be perfect.â€
In accordance with President Bush’s vision, MAST will have models ready for testing by 2020 — the planned return to the moon. The skis will be tested extensively on the lunar surface before being cleared for the later Mars missions. â€œObviously we can only test so muchâ€ Smith concedes. â€œWe all know that there is no substitute for testing at the actual venue.â€
And Andersen isn’t willing to concede to Dreamski on the wax front. â€œI believe we can develop a full line of waxes — both glide and kick — for use on the Martian trails. And initially we don’t have to worry about speed at all cost — we need dependable performance at reasonable cost — so we won’t be looking for high priced covers at this point. Durability is of course a major concern.â€
President Bush summed up his call to action at his 2004 press conference, â€œIn the past 30 years, no human being has set foot on another world, or ventured farther upward into space than 386 miles — roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Boston, Massachusetts. America has not developed a new vehicle to advance human exploration in space in nearly a quarter century. It is time for America to take the next stepsâ€ â€” or in this case, the next strides.
An artist's rendition of an astronaut using skis as a personal transport device on Mars. Note the high tech, skin tight space suit. The bright colors and apparently random patterns provide resistance to dangerous radiation.