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NASA’s totally metal space tires never go flat and are coming to your bicycle soon

By Benjamin Bullard

Ah, the thrill of setting off across the planetary landscape. Untethered from an astronaut suit and taking in the sounds of the open air — it's just you, your bike, and a set of spaced-out metal wheels that all but guarantee that, no matter where you venture, you’ll never end up stranded.

Sound like science fiction? Not if the planet’s Earth, and not if your bike is kitted out with a pair of NASA-approved, titanium-nickel alloy tires engineered by the folks at The SMART Tire Company. Taking a cue from NASA after seeing all the havoc the Martian surface could wreak on the Curiosity rover’s aluminum wheels, SMART (short for Shape Memory Alloy Radial Technology) has been developing higher-tech rims to withstand future space missions — and now it’s aiming to apply the same technology to the cycling world.

SMART’s “tires” are really complete rims; rims whose metal-meets-the-ground surfaces are made of a shape-adapting mesh alloy called NiTinol that’s “specially treated,” via Inverse, “to more or less permanently retain its shape.” Manufactured in a process that heats the wheels to temperatures in excess of 500 degrees Celsius, the result is a material that bounces back to its original shape with every deforming bump in the road, coupled with an ultra-durable lifespan designed for the extreme temperatures and hard knocks of planetary surfaces far harsher than Earth’s.

The webby material looks plenty futuristic, letting light pass through its porous alloy membrane while maintaining the same basic form factor as a conventional rubber bike tire:

A SMART METL bicycle tire shown alongside a conventional rubber tire
Sunlight passes through alloy mesh of the SMART METL bicycle tire

The tires are the fruit of a NASA-sponsored startup initiative launched last year to entice the private sector to adapt its own space-worthy innovations for real-world uses. The “superelastic” tire tech, says NASA, was among nine such innovations showcased at the NASA Startup Studio in the summer of 2020, with SMART demonstrating how a super-reliable set of wheels could do plenty for bikers here on our planet — in addition to keeping space rovers moving on the Moon and Mars.

NASA describes the underlying technology as a durable alloy weave in which “wires are woven together to create an airless tire structure that has the ability to flex with the terrain, unlike current rigid wheels. The SMA [shape memory alloy] material acts as a shock-absorber and can traverse rock-laden terrain effortlessly without breaking or damaging the tire.”

It doesn’t take a giant leap of imagination to dream up all the ways that could be useful for cycling enthusiasts on the eternal hunt for the next big Earthbound thrill. And like their spaced-out counterparts, which are still in development for future rover applications, the tires just look plain cool.

SMART is currently keeping quiet on how much this kind of wheeled wizardry might cost, but it’s serious about getting it out the door for real-world use. The company is currently crowdfunding additional capital for its METL bike tires via WeFunder, with the goal of giving cyclists a tire that, whether on distant planets or good old dirt-kickin’ terra firma, just might outlast the bike they’re attached to.