NASA wants to build a lunar base by 2030. Could 3D printing with moon dust be the answer? #Breaking112
The last time a person stepped foot on the moon was 1972. Now, the moon is back on NASA’s space agenda. This time around the agency isn’t just visiting — it’s planning to stay.
BIG’s concept for Project Olympus includes donut-shaped buildings which could be entirely constructed with ICON’s 3D printer. Credit: Bjarke Ingels Group / ICON
The initiative is named Project Olympus after the largest-known volcano in the solar system — aptly conveying the mountain-sized challenge the team faces. But Ballard isn’t just shooting for the moon. By designing a lunar habitat, he hopes to make construction on Earth cleaner, faster and cheaper, too.
ICON has been using 3D printing technology to build social housing in Mexico and Texas, since 2018. Using a concrete-based mixture called lavacrete, its Vulcan printer can print around 500-square-feet in 24 hours.
But the moon is a “radically different world,” says Ballard. From Earth, it looks like a serene, smooth, silver orb but it is subject to high levels of radiation, violent moonquakes, extreme temperature swings and frequent strikes by micrometeorites that crash through its thin atmosphere, he says.
And turning moon dust into building material is another huge challenge. The team is experimenting with small samples of moon dust in a lab — working out how to change its state with microwaves, lasers and infrared light, while using “little to no additives,” says Ballard.
The research area in ICON’s proposed lunar structure is illuminated with smart lights that simulate day and night on Earth, to help astronauts retain a normal sleep-wake cycle. Credit: Bjarke Ingels Group / ICON
ICON worked with two architectural firms, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch+), to explore the possibilities of 3D printing technology.
The team studied habitats in extreme environments, including the McMurdo Station in Antarctica and the International Space Station, and used their findings to create a range of lunar design concepts, says Ballard.
The architects had to consider how to create an environment that is safe as well as comfortable to live in, says BIG founder Bjarke Ingels.
The proposal by SEArch+ features a tall, multi-story structure with protective 3D-printed petals shielding a core that would be built on Earth, while BIG designed a circular structure which could be entirely printed on the moon.
BIG’s design includes a visible membrane of water padding the walls of the bedroom — “a good insulant against radiation,” says Ingels — which will give astronauts extra protection while they sleep.
The radiation means that windows must be kept to a minimum, so Ingels carefully chose the location of the building’s only one — which always faces Earth.
SEArch+ imagined a base “that will allow astronauts to frequently come and go from the surface,” with landing pads, roads, sheds and habitats says co-founder Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman. Credit: SEArch+ / ICON
A “double shell” structure and exterior latticework, which can be packed with loose lunar dust, provide additional protection from radiation and meteorites, says Ingels.
In addition to living and working spaces for astronauts, the lunar base would need to incorporate landing pads, roads and storage sheds. Human presence in space has been “dominated by engineering” so far, says Ingels. With multiple industries working together he hopes that the first permanent structure on the moon can be “aspirational” in design as well as an engineering marvel.
A gateway to the galaxy
ICON’s 3D-printer, Vulcan, draws the outline of the building one layer at a time. It can print up to 500 square feet in 24 hours. Credit: ICON
Its goal, however, is a permanent base, from which to explore the moon in more depth and and test technology for human survival in space. NASA wants to construct facilities to house four astronauts for up to a month, says Skelly. It’s an essential first step to Mars — and beyond.
Skelly says it has not yet been decided if the lunar habitat will be constructed using 3D printing, but “NASA could award ICON additional funding” and might give the company the opportunity to test its technology on the lunar surface.
Using moon tech on Earth
Ballard is optimistic about the technology’s Earthbound potential, too. He believes the findings from Project Olympus could help to solve the global housing crisis.
ICON’s first 3D construction project was a collaboration with non-profit New Story in Mexico, to build a social housing community for people who had lost their homes in natural disasters. Credit: Joshua Perez / ICON
“It’s kind of a funny thought,” he says, “but it just may turn out that the answers to our problems on Earth are on the moon or Mars.”