The last time someone set foot on the moon was in 1972. Now, the moon is back on NASA’s space agenda. This time around the agency isn’t just a visit – it plans to stay.
The BIG concept for the Olympus project includes donut-shaped buildings that can be completely constructed with an ICON 3D printer. credit: Bjarke Ingels / ICON Group
The initiative is named after Project Olympus after the largest known volcano in the solar system – appropriately conveys the challenge of the size of the mountain the team faces. But Ballard isn’t just aiming for the moon. By designing a lunar habitat, he hopes to make building on Earth cleaner, faster, and cheaper as well.
ICON has been using 3D printing technology to build social housing in Mexico and Texas, since 2018. Using a mixture of concrete called lavacrete, its Vulcan printer can print about 500 square feet in 24 hours.
Ballard says the moon is “a radically different world”. From Earth, it looks like a calm and soft silver ball, but it is subject to high levels of radiation, violent lunar earthquakes, extreme temperature fluctuations, and repeated strikes by tiny meteorites crashing into their thin atmosphere, he says.
Turning moon dust into a building material is another big challenge. The team is experimenting with small samples of moon dust in the lab – and working on how to change its state using microwaves, lasers and infrared light, with “little or no additives,” says Ballard.
The research area in the proposed ICON lunar structure is illuminated by smart lights that simulate day and night on Earth, to help astronauts maintain a natural sleep-wake cycle. credit: Bjarke Ingels / ICON Group
ICON has worked with two architecture 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, Ballard says.
The architects had to think about how to create a safe and comfortable environment in which to live, says BIG founder, Jark Engels.
The proposal from SEArch + features a tall, multi-tiered structure with 3D printed protective petals protecting a core that will be built onto the ground, while BIG has designed a circular structure that can be completely printed on the moon.
The BIG design includes a visible waterproof membrane that lines the bedroom walls – “good insulation against radiation,” says Engels – that gives astronauts extra protection while they sleep.
The radiation meant that the windows had to be kept to a minimum, so Engels carefully selected the building’s only building location – one that always faces the ground.
SEArch + envisioned a rule that “will allow astronauts to come and go frequently from the surface” with landing pads, roads, sheds and habitats, says co-founder Rebecca Biles Friedman. credit: SEArch + / ICON
Engels says the “dual” structure and external grids, which can be filled with loose moon dust, provide additional protection from radiation and meteorites.
In addition to the living and working quarters for the astronauts, the Lunar base will need to incorporate landing pads, roads, and storage parachutes. Until now, Engels says, the human presence in space has been “dominated”. With multiple industries working together, he hopes the first permanent structure on the moon’s surface will be an “ambitious” design as well as an engineering marvel.
A portal to the galaxy
ICON’s 3D printer, Vulcan, maps building outlines one layer at a time. It can print up to 500 square feet in 24 hours. credit: icon
However, its goal is a permanent base from which to explore the moon in more depth and test technology for human survival in space. NASA wants to build facilities to house four astronauts for up to a month, Skelly says. It is an essential first step towards Mars and beyond.
Skelly says it has not yet been decided whether to create the lunar habitat using 3D printing, but “NASA may give ICON additional funding” and may give the company the opportunity to test its technology on the moon.
The use of moon technology on Earth
Balard is optimistic about the potential of technology on Earth, too. It is believed that the findings of the Olympus project could help solve the global housing crisis.
ICON’s first 3D building project was a collaboration with the nonprofit New Story in Mexico, to build a social housing community for people who lost their homes in natural disasters. credit: Joshua Perez / ICON
“It’s a bit of a funny idea,” he says, “but it might turn out that the answers to our problems on Earth are on the moon or Mars.”