Note: A shorter version of this article appears in the current edition of the 2111 Foundation's Newsletter "Tranquility Base".

"Roger Houston, on belay!"
By Keith Cowing © Copyright 1996


Back to the Future

As a child growing up in the early 1960's, my first impression of mountains on other worlds was of lofty, sharp, lunar peaks, clearly modeled after terrestrial mountains, exaggerated in scale and starkness. The most compelling influence came from a 1961 record and slide set, "Rocket to the Moon". This was the CD-ROM equivalent of those times. This presentation contained images painted by Chesley Bonestell, the undisputed pioneer of space art, and was narrated by Walter Cronkite, who had already become the most memorable chronicler of those exciting days. To hear the same voice that described the space missions of the day talk of future expeditions to the moon left this young boy with a undeniable certainty that these things would come to pass within his lifetime.

Teams of astronauts were shown in various locations - usually as small ant-like shapes poised against dramatically-lit lunar vistas - all part of a grand expedition to the moon, one seemingly mounted along the lines of the siege-approach to Himalayan mountaineering common on earth at that time. Looking at other books of the time, most notably Werner Von Braun's "First Men to the Moon" (1958), the numerous articles in Collier's Magazine in the early 1950's by Von Braun with Bonstell's compelling imagery, and even Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), one got the clear impression that we were going to explore the moon - and other worlds along the lines as we had explored the great frontiers of earth, that we'd do so swiftly and methodically, with Apollo-esque grand budgets, and seemingly without pause.

We didn't.

If you look at what we might have done on the later Apollo missions - 18,19, and 20 - the ones Nixon canceled, and some of the bolder concepts, later discarded, for missions that did fly, some of Bonstell's imagery might have been played out in real life. Winched rappels into the 3 mile deep crater Tycho, landings in the middle of the 57 mile wide crater Copernicus which boasts a central peak 2,700 feet high surrounded by 2.5 mile-high crater walls, even multi-week stays as precursors to permanent bases - all were contemplated - and planned - and then discarded. It was as if we made it to the summit of Everest, returned a few more times, lost the will, and then gave up on ever trying to go back by throwing away all of our climbing gear.

Fast Forward to the Future

Let's assume that we do go to Mars, back to the Moon, and other worlds in our Solar System - personally. Before we start making our plans for grand explorations to the planets, and scrambling about upon their varied surfaces, we need to get a little more space suit engineering under our belts. The spacesuits designed for the Apollo lunar missions, while they performed admirably during short stays on the moon, would be totally inadequate for extended surface activity far from home. They were designed for a specific individual, required to function for no more than a few hours at a time across a total performance period of a few days, had little capacity for on-site repair, and were never required to operate too far from a safe haven - and a quick trip home.

To be able to explore other worlds as we have our own, we will need a whole new class of spacesuit - a "surface suit", if you will. In this article, I'll only consider climbing on worlds in the outer solar system - in particular, Mars and the Uranian moon Miranda. We'll assume that we will want to climb large mountains; rappel into calderas, craters, and crevasses - and then haul ourselves out; climb large ice features, and be able to "live off the land" for prolonged periods of time. We are also going to fall, get hurt, find ourselves in life threatening situations, and encounter things we didn't expect.

We will also assume that surface suits and gear are either able to survive the transition to/from human habitat and planetary surface multiple times, that contamination in both directions is minimized or prevented, that surface suits and gear allow meaningful work to be done, that they are repairable, indeed, be capable of being rebuilt in the field, and that spacesuits are capable of minimal life support after sustaining significant damage - either to the suit and/or the occupant.

In order to do any serious mountaineering or climbing on another planet, you are going to have to spend days - or weeks constantly enclosed in a surface suit. No one ever has. Apollo EVAs on the moon never exceeded 8 hours each. Life support systems will need to be designed to handle the peak loads that would go with exertion. These systems require power. Up until now, be it in earth orbit, or on the moon, suits could be recharged - with power and consumables. Suits will have to be designed to recycle far more than they do now - either that or you'll need to spend far less time walking/climbing and more time in or near your rover.

Climbing Gear: Much of the gear we have come to take for granted on Earth will not function elsewhere in the solar system. The synthetic materials currently used for ropes and harnesses probably won't hold up to extreme temperatures, high UV levels, and exposure to hard vacuum. At very low temperatures, new rope materials, perhaps nano-engineered, may need to be developed. Ropes may even need to be heated while in use so as to make them flexible. At very low temperatures, the metals currently used for carabiners, camming devices, crampons, pitons, axes, etc., will certainly become so brittle as to fracture. As such, gear developed for use in the outer solar system will likely need to be specially created. Specific problems to overcome will include dealing with the mechanical forces that go with gear placement (pitons, ice screws etc.) in bizarre substrates such as like methane ice.

Gloves and Boots: As was the case with Apollo, gloves and boots will need to be insulated such that heat transfer from climber to surface is minimized. Gloves will need to be much more flexible than any in use today. If technical climbing is to be contemplated, new sticky substances will need to be created that work within a specific temperature range. At low temperatures, the challenge may well be finding anything that can "smear". I would suspect that any material designed to function within a certain temperature range may well need to be fabricated - and stored at that range to preserve molecular integrity and performance. If we are going to need the equivalent of crampons, similar challenges arise: for ices on Mars, terrestrial hardware should be readily adaptable. New alloys will be needed though for colder worlds. Boots will likely need to be designed such that multiple attachments can be added easily - and interchangeably - between one person's boots and another's.

Helmets: Faceplates will need to have all of the characteristics currently required: optical clarity, coatings to minimize fogging, the ability to add optical filters. For climbing, superior impact resistance and field repair/replacement will be crucial. If work within a significant atmosphere is contemplated, then materials resistant to thermal and chemical extremes on both sides of the faceplate need to be developed. Since surface suits will be used for prolonged periods, some mechanism for eating needs to be built into the helmets. It might also be prudent to have data displays embedded in the faceplate or other portion of the helmet so as to allow access to data regardless of external visibility.

Contamination: Surface suits need to be non-exfoliating, that is, they can't allow the shedding of terrestrial biota onto other worlds. How strict we need to adhere to this depends on what sort of "prime directive" we impose upon ourselves. There will likely be special rules established for individual worlds, with a minimal set imposed on all. On worlds where the risk of contamination by humans would be of little consequence such as outer ice worlds where things are so cold that terrestrial life could not function long enough to pose a hazard, things might be more lax. For worlds where life once existed or could still exist, we need to be extra careful. After all, we don't want to destroy the very thing we came to observe nor do we wish to take unnecessary risks by exposing ourselves to a novel biota or hazardous chemistry.

Human Factors: Martian gravity at 0.38G is the highest we will encounter among the dozens of worlds outside of Earth's orbit where we might want to go climbing. The Earth's moon and the Galilean moons are all around 0.18G, followed by surface gravities that drop off rapidly as worlds get smaller. Given these low-G environments, properly conditioned humans will be able to carry far more gear and get away with many more stunts than they ever could on Earth. This assumes a lot of course: that there will be some combination of chemical and exercise regimen that allows humans to retain a robust body despite the lack of a terrestrial-strength gravitational field. Indeed, one of the simplest ways to keep one's strength up on these smaller worlds would be to have people walk around carrying lots of excess weight (gear)!

Enough Gear Mongering, It's Time to Climb!

What sort of climbing and mountaineering might we do on other worlds? Let's start with the place we're most likely to go next: Mars. The gear that will be on hand is obviously going to be designed to accomplish mission objectives. With the possible exception of the materials used in ropes and harnesses, and some of the means used to lubricate climbing gear, current mountaineering and climbing gear - and methodologies - should be directly applicable to Mars.

There will likely be a need to frequently sample various rock strata, thus requiring some scrambling up slopes and lowering down into crevasses. Since drills or rock hammers are going to be required, the ability to tie off and anchor yourself in and extract samples will be required. Hopefully, surface crews will be faced with digging out fossils. Certainly microfossils, and hopefully, as exploration expands, MACROfossils. This will require more sophisticated equipment including drills, hoists, crates, and the ability to manipulate and transport large heavy objects. Since there is a certain risk involved in all of this, repair systems (for humans as well as equipment) will need to be on hand. If we have guessed correctly, all of the infrastructure will be in place to let some fools go off and climb.

Missions to Mars are going to be lengthy endeavors for some time to come. As soon as surface crews meet certain milestones (can we get back home? do the suits work as advertised?, does the rover?, are samples stowed? etc.), they can move on to more detailed, and risky tasks. Since it will always be a given that there is a risk that one error could leave several people with compound fractures millions of miles from the nearest hospital, crews will likely be chosen as much for their conservatism as for their adventurism.

On a mission where a large portion of the tasks have as much, if not more, to do with paleontology, field biology, geology, than with flying spaceships, all crew members will require a certain prerequisite level of mountaineering and climbing. Mars is a world of geological (areological?) wonders which dwarf those found on Earth. There is clearly going to be a temptation for a bunch of adept climbers, far from home, to push the limits once in a while. As such, mission planners might was well design mission rules that take this inevitability into account and allow it to be focused into productive endeavors. Indeed, the current "extracurricular restrictions" imposed upon antarctic researchers by their sponsors may serve as a good model for use in reigning in Martian explorers.

Advances in imaging capability on and above Mars, will soon allow a personalized recon of Martian terrain to be carried out by thousands of people well before humans actually set foot on Mars. This will be done via VR simulators ("VR Beta") which will allow mission planners to do very-very-hi-res flyovers of nearly all of the Martian surface. Anyone contemplating an expedition up the side of Olympus Mons will be able to practice their route in safety at home.

Does this mean that the impetus to go there will be diminished? I don't think so. If anything, it may make it easier to actually convince someone to let you do it. A few years ago a I wrote a short fiction piece for Ad Astra magazine wherein my climbers did an illegal ascent of the 90,000 foot volcano Olympus Mons including a big wall assault on the multi-kilometer high escarpment which surrounds most of O. Mons. . While I wouldn't rule this out (given the certain personality traits common among climbers!) I suspect that one could come up with clear scientific reasons why a less extreme areological expedition to examine this mountain could be mounted as a full-fledged expedition.

Let's imagine then that we want to take a team of 5 people on a one week mountaineering foray up O. Mons. If you avoid my fictional big wall siege, the hike would be rather mellow with a gentle slope all the way to the summit. You'd need to carry some sort of inflatable shelter, enough consumables to offset unrecyclable materials, food, and all of the ropes and gear required. You'd also have to be prepared to return all food containers and all human waste. It might not be necessary to carry or return everything. You could cache supplies in advance and leave waste materials behind in rugged containers for later pickup by a rover - or maybe loft a balloon with a snag line such that some Martian airplane could snatch the stuff.

A large inflatable shelter, where people can get in and out of their surface suits (without allowing any cross contamination) would afford team members the pleasure of eating at several meals a day in comfort. It would also partially reduce the need to eliminate waste within a spacesuit and would make sleeping far more comfortable.

Miranda: Extremely Extreme Ice Climbing

Once you get out beyond Mars, you encounter multiple worlds made of increasing amounts of ice (with Io and Titan being exceptions). The topography on the larger worlds wherein gravity and internal heat sources are still able to provide an energy source to drive resurfacing, the ice/rock topography is relatively unspectacular. As you move outward and to smaller worlds, things start to liven up. Small worlds, some of them formed by collisions, are able to retain odd shapes and spectacular, seemingly improbable topographies owing to a diminution of the forces that would quickly modify such features on larger worlds.

The Uranian moon Miranda, 290 miles in diameter, has suffered repeated shattering collisions. This has led to the formation of the most spectacular cliffs in the entire solar system. As imaged by Voyager 2, the Rupes escarpment towers as much as 7 miles above the surface - more than a dozen times the height of Yosemite's El Capitan. Why would we want to climb these monstrous cliffs? People asked the same question about El Capitan. I wouldn't put it beyond some TV sports show to sponsor something like this if it generated enough ratings and advertising income. Remember, we've already had large inflatable soft drink cans anchored outside of Mir.

Let's assume for a moment that we have traveled several billion miles and have all of the resources required to climb these cliffs. What are the challenges? First, it is very very cold out here: methane ice at - 200° to -300°C. Gear will need to be strong enough to be worked into the ice to anchor protection. Given the hardness of the ice, we'll need some sort of recoilless drill to get the gear in place. We'll also need to be firmly anchored - not just to prevent a fall. Remember, Miranda has a surface gravity less than a tenth of the Earth's moon. As such, big wall climbing on Miranda may have more in common with zero G EVA than it does with terrestrial mountaineering.

We will need to carry some sort of pressurized bivy dome and find some way to prevent any external material from getting inside where it could melt and possibly produce lethal vapors. By this time, we will have no doubt pioneered the art of tethering ourselves to asteroids and comets - skills which will come in handy here.

There is going to have to be some very careful calculation done regarding optimum team size and the gear needed. A very low gravity field will certainly be a great help allowing huge amounts of stuff to be hauled up the wall. But you still have to handle it. As anyone who has done any large climbs will tell you, the greatest challenge to big wall climbs is often the ballet of gear management. One mistake and you can fall. While the gravity on Miranda is minimal, falling 7 miles, unimpeded, could allow you to perform quite a splattering wallop upon impact! A rocket pack such as Mr. Spock wore during Kirk's El Cap ascent in Star Trek V might be the ideal piece of safety gear.

Other Fun Stuff.

We have provided only 2 of an endless number of climbing opportunities in the outer solar system. There will likely be many other opportunities for the extreme sports enthusiast. Here are a few more to contemplate: Mountaineering on Titan where the air is more than twice as thick as it is at sea level on earth, the gravity is only a bit more than the Earth's moon, and the ground is covered with poisonous hydrocarbons. You might just want to strap on wings and fly instead. Then there's crevasse travel on Europa where a fall might plunge you into a world-wide ocean. Better bring that SCUBA gear just in case. An then there's Venus where your surface suit would be more like a submarine with legs and where your climbing gear would need to be made out of diamonds so as not to melt.

Once we've climbed on the solar system's varied worlds, the only environmental extreme that Earth is likely to retain claim to is the fact that it has the highest gravity of any world with a surface that can be climbed. That is, unless you are contemplating ascents of centimeter-high peaks made of metallic hydrogen at Jupiter's core ...

Photo Credits: Top (Moon) and Middle (Mars): NASA. Bottom (Miranda): USGS


Keith Cowing is a biologist, climber, and former NASA civil servant, who develops various Internet applications at his company, Reston Communications. Among his more popular web creations are The Seneca Rocks Web, The Whole Mars Catalog, The Astrobiology Web, Genomics: A Global Resource, and NASAWatch.

Keith is also an occasional freelance writer who has written space/climbing articles for Ad Astra magazine ["Oh Mons! The First Ascent of Olympus Mons"] and Climbing Magazine ["Everest On Orbit"]. Keith has also written a summary of his own personal climbing mini-epic ["My Ascent of the Petit Grepon and the Lingering After Effects"].