This article argues that not only is mountain biking on Mars feasible,
but a necessary step in human freedom. All too soon we need to decide if we’re going to bunny-hop the chasm, or if we’re going to bail off the trail and start that long descent down the primordial slopes into the muck from whence we arose.
A mountain-bike racing trip to Mars could be put together using current technology for a cost of around 30 billion dollars, or about 8 to 12 percent of the NASA operating budget spread over twenty years. While out of the range of individual pocketbooks, this is in fact about the same cost as a few measly shuttle launches or several dozen SpaceX launches.
Using emerging technologies, a scram jet based SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) launch vehicle can push an ERV (Earth Return Vehicle) containing 30 tonnes of bikes, passenger habitat, food and other supplies into a Mars orbit with a 180 day travel time. Prior to the rider heading off for Mars, an automated habitat would be sent first which would land on Mars using a combination of atmospheric braking, aeroshell and parachute assist to land on the Martian surface. It would do in-situ refueling from locally available resources, needing only energy which it would provide itself in the form of an onboard nuclear reactor. Return fuel is generated by reacting carbon dioxide (which constitutes 95% of the Martian atmosphere) with hydrogen to produce methane and water. The water is then split into Co2 and O2, with the Co2 being vented and the O2 being kept. At the end of 6 months the automated return vehicle will have produced 108 tonnes of methane and oxygen. A rocket engine can burn methane and oxygen to produce a specific thrust impulse at 380 seconds — sufficient to lift off the bikes and passengers back to Earth after the ride. By using sending an automated launch vehicle first we can guarantee that the bikes have survived landing trauma and are known to be ready to cut some gnarly new trail. Around that time as well a number of small GPS and Communication satellitelets would be deployed for later use by the rider in trail mapping.
The preferred bikes would be a 60 cm carbon fiber frame custom frame — no suspension needed for the right frame. XT derailleur, 172.5 mm cranks and velociraptor treads. Alternatively a “live metal” like titanium alloy with cold weld tubing would provide good lateral stiffness combined with terrain sensitivity suitable for the reduced gravity of Mars. Bike parts would also be sent, but machining components for replacement is also possible using insitu on surface resources such as magnesium and tungsten which Mars has in profusion. One of the unique challenges in biking in a lower gravity environment will be maintaining tractive forces on steep climbs. Chain snake technology which allows for both front and back wheel traction by carrying rider pedal torque to the front wheel without obstructing turning may find an ideal partner in this need. For best bike performance the trip needs to arrive in mid summer with a daytime maximum of 17 degrees centigrade (about 63' Fahrenheit). Suspension systems cannot be hydralic because of reduced pressure issues but need to be static spring based. Gearing and lubricants will work well under these conditions which are no more extreme than a cool day away from the equator. Clips would be de-rigour for this kind of terrain, primarily for the %35 increased pedal power and control. The environment suits will all be designed with clippable shoewear. The primary clothing will be a lightweight spacesuit which is slightly inflated in segments and which has a polypro to wick away excess moisture. Constant air circulation within the suit will cycle air over the body and help maintain dryness as well as create an insulation barrier between the body and ambient temperatures on Mars. The suit will be reinforced with kevlar strands and possibly even hinged to help prevent broken bones and bruises in these far-from-help conditions.
The race will be to the top and back down the 24 kilometer peak of Olympus Mons with a grand prize of $50 billion for the first participant to complete, and a consolation prize of $10 billion for the fastest ride time within a given ten year period. The prize funds will be collected by a mass appeal for at between 70 million sponsors to each ante up $1000 dollars and 700 million sponsors to each ante up $100. Remaining funds are kept as a slush fund to promote and support the effort. Suitable race participants need to be prepared to spend 2 years away from home in living conditions similar to that of a mid-sized apartment, and need a solid engineering and mechanical background for on the spot trouble shooting.
The stay on Mars would allow about 500 days of riding until a suitable return launch window arrived. This would provide an opportunity to cut some new trails and do some of the finest riding anywhere in the Solar System. Mars provides the most unique and possibly most satisfying opportunity for mountain biking being the only other planet in the Solar system with tolerable sunlight and atmospheric conditions. The lower gravity (38% of Earth) affords the rider the ability to practically leap small canyons and allows ascents that appear superhuman on earth. Descents which would be suicidal on Earth become just another part of the riders repertoire. Mars has mountains thrice the height of Mount Everest and canyons three times the depth of the Grand Canyon and five times as long. The exhilaration of biking down Olympus Mons or into the 6 kilometer deep, 4000 kilometer long Valles Marineris canyon would be unparalleled.
Best of all, Mars today is completely unpopulated, and there are no enforceable restrictions on the riders speed or trails of choice at this time. By having riders arriving first on Mars, a rider friendly and rider positive planetary law system would be encouraged as well. Not only are vehicular rovers impractical from a fuel, speed and range aspect, but their tremendous mass and dependency inducing issues are a threat to rider everywhere. Riders need to arrive first to set a beachhead and a ‘critical mass’ of rider positive freedoms. As well, by being first to ride on Mars, a new breed of riders will grow up who will set a basis for innovation in riding frame design and suspension and tactics. The presence of new terrain, and the freedom from the increasing bureaucratization and safe yuppification of riding on Earth would be left far behind, with good old ingenuity and daring coming to the fore. If a rider is not facing life and death choices in their decisions then they will not be bringing all of their faculties to the issue and as seemingly evidenced in our society may remain net non-contributors to societies growth. By placing riders in such a harsh environment, riders will be highly motivated to find creative solutions to potential high risk issues they face, and given that there is such a large space of new inventions to be discovered, it is undoubtable that this will make bike technology leapfrog forward and benefit rider positive society as a whole. Riders need to get in gear today if we want to ride on Mars tomorrow!
[ This has been a friendly spoof of ‘The Case for Mars’ by Robert Zubrin and Richard Wagners. This is a repost from 1997. ]
Anselm Hook is a games developer, mountain biker and caving enthusiast, sometimes all at the same time. He rides a clipped aluminum Trek 9000X and has a carbon graphite Giant as emergency backup.