NASA hasn’t been shy about its plans to build a base on the moon at some point in the relatively near future. That being said, the space industry has changed quite a bit since NASA last landed humans on the moon. Private companies now play a bigger role than ever before.
When NASA attempts to build its first lunar base, it will be with the help of a high-tech construction firm called ICON. The space agency and the U.S. Air Force signed a $14.5 million contract with the company. ICON will develop a system to print 3D structures that can be used here on Earth and for future moon missions. Codenamed “Project Olympus,” the technology will be designed to autonomously create large-scale structures that can house astronauts and equipment.
Print a Home
Sending humans back to the moon is already a daunting task. Trying to establish a permanent foothold there is much more difficult. However, NASA views that as the key to furthering its exploration of Earth’s closest solar neighbor. With a lunar base to operate from, astronauts can branch out further onto the moon’s surface. Meanwhile, it could also be used as a launch point for future missions to destinations like Mars.
Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s Game Changing Development program executive, said in a statement, “To be successful in our future missions, we have to invest in new, cutting-edge technologies today. Near-term research and development will help ensure we can expand building capabilities on other worlds when the time comes.”
To help offset the cost of the $14.5 million contract with ICON, NASA is working with the U.S. Air Force. The military branch will also benefit from ICON’s 3D-printed habitat research—albeit on Earth rather than the moon. NASA is committing $1.8 million to the endeavor to adapt the research for applications in space.
The construction startup’s CEO, Jason Ballard, says, “From the very founding of ICON, we’ve been thinking about off-world construction. I am confident that learning to build on other worlds will also provide the necessary breakthroughs to solve housing challenges we face on this world. These are mutually reinforcing endeavors.”
Oddly enough, a number of different startups are exploring the idea of 3D printing space habitats. One is AI SpaceFactory, whose egg-shaped habitat is designed to be printed with materials that come from the destination planet.
It is unclear what sort of materials ICON and NASA plan to use for their 3D-printed structures. However, the idea of using materials from the lunar surface is certainly a viable strategy.
Doing work related to its new contract won’t be the first time that ICON has been involved with NASA. It previously took part in the agency’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge.
To help develop a solution that will make living on the moon possible, ICON is reportedly partnering with a number of high-profile architects and architecture firms. It will also build on the advancements it has made with Earth-based 3D-printed homes in an effort to adapt the technology to space. In 2018, ICON was the first company to deliver a fully-permitted 3D-printed home in the United States.
Of course, replicating that success on the moon will take some time. “Building humanity’s first home on another world will be the most ambitious construction project in human history and will push science, engineering, technology and architecture to literal new heights,” Ballard says.