When I talked to NASA mechanical engineer Colin Creager about space tires — Mars rover tires to be exact — I asked him about the long wait.
By the time the team finds out if the tires worked, they will have invested at least a decade in building and testing, followed by four years of waiting as the rover is completed and launched into orbit.
Is the waiting the hardest part?
Mr. Creager laughed, acknowledging the wait, but said it also is par for the course for a NASA project, because any small failure can ruin a mission.
"For this particular mission, it will be weird that we will be done in 2024 building them, and then we'll ship them off to the rover team," he said. "But just seeing those tires driving around on Mars is just an extra motivator for us."
The mission is planned to launch in 2026 and reach Mars in 2028.
The Perseverance Rover, which landed on Mars in March, will collect samples and leave them in canisters at spots around the Red Planet. The 2026 mission will send a lighter, faster rover to retrieve those samples and deliver them to a launch station to be sent into orbit and, by around 2031, returned to Earth to be studied.
The tires are made of a woven nickel-titanium "smart-memory" alloy that offers the unique characteristic to rearrange itself at an atomic level to handle deformation. Basically, this means the tire can roll over a rocky landscape like that on Mars, endure extreme temperatures and return to shape.