The Moon is a magnet that attracts us.
Half a century ago, the Apollo 17 astronauts spent three days on this star with a hole in its surface, whose gravitational pull exerts not only on our oceans, but also on our imagination. For 75 hours, astronauts walked on the Moon in their spacesuits and rode around in a rover, with humanity watching on televisions 150,000 miles away. The Apollo program was shut down after the astronauts returned to the Pacific Ocean in December 1972, and since then the Moon has hung empty and unmarked in the sky like a mermaid.
Now NASA is planning a comeback. This time, the stay will be long. To do this, NASA will build houses on the Moon, which can be used not only by astronauts, but also by ordinary civilians. She believes that by 2040, Americans will have their first housing development in space. Living on Mars is not far behind. Some members of the scientific community believe that NASA’s timetable is too ambitious, especially before the proven success of another moon landing. But seven NASA scientists interviewed for this article all said the 2040 target for lunar structures is achievable if the agency can continue to meet its goals.
The US space agency will send a 3D printer to the Moon, then build structures, layer by layer, from specialized lunar concrete created using an amalgam of rock shards, mineral fragments and dust that rest on the upper layer of the cratered surface of the Moon and which spread into toxic clouds as soon as they are disturbed. An ambitious project made possible thanks to new technologies and partnerships with universities and private companies.
Werkheiser, whose family owned a small construction company when she was a child in Franklin, Tenn., guides the creation of new programs, machines and robots for future space missions.
NASA is more open than ever to partnering with academics and industry leaders, which has broadened the scope compared to the Apollo era, Werkheiser said. “We brought all the right people together at the right time with a common goal, and that’s why I think we’ll get there,” she said. “Everyone is ready to take this step together, so if we develop our core capabilities, there’s no reason why it can’t be done. »
Among the many obstacles to taking up residence on the Moon is dust – a fine powder so abrasive it can cut like glass. It swirls in noxious plumes and is toxic when inhaled.
Yet four years ago, Raymond Clinton Jr., deputy director of the science and technology office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, took out a whiteboard to sketch out the idea of houses, roads and landing strips. Dust is a problem, it’s true. But it could also be the solution.
If it is possible to 3D print houses on Earth from soil and its minerals found here, houses on the Moon could be printed from the soil there, where temperatures can reach 600 degrees and where a dangerous combination of radiation and micrometeorites pose a risk to buildings and bodies.
“What that might be is up to the imagination of entrepreneurs,” Clinton continues.
NASA has partnered with ICON, a construction technology company based in Austin, Texas, to achieve its 2040 goal. ICON received initial funding from NASA in 2020, and in 2022 it announced a An additional $60 million for a space-based construction system that can be used beyond Earth to print everything from rocket landing pads to habitats, all with concrete mixed on site. For now, the plans are little more than renderings, but architects from the Bjarke Ingels Group and SEArch have been invited to help develop the concepts and drawings.
Almost any object can be 3D printed, and the process has been touted by ICON and others in the industry as a quick, cost-effective solution to the country’s housing shortage. 3D printing allows you to build objects layer by layer from a digital file. In its construction projects on Earth, ICON uses a patented building material called Lavacrete.
The company is no stranger to ambitious projects: it created the large-scale robotic construction system Vulcan, which was used to build some of the first 3D printed homes in North America. These include Community First! Austin Village, which combines 400 homes for the homeless and homes in a village of affordable, hurricane-resistant homes for Mexicans living in poverty in the isolated town of Nacajuca.
“This is a surprisingly natural progression when considering how additive construction and 3D printing can create a better future for humanity,” said Jason Ballard, CEO of ICON , in a press release.
“The chemistry is the same up there, but the physics is different,” says Patrick Suermann, interim dean of the School of Architecture at University A
He says traveling light is essential because each additional kilogram carried by a rocket to the Moon costs about $1 million. Transporting materials from Earth to build in space is not viable, Suermann said. “And there’s no Home Depot up there. So you either have to know how to use what’s up there or send everything you need. »
Any equipment sent to the Moon must be tested on Earth to ensure it can withstand the environment. Marshall therefore has more than a dozen test chambers that subject the items to the same radiation and thermal vacuum conditions as they would experience on Earth. In February 2024, the ICON printer will be lowered into the larger chamber for its first test.
Before NASA and companies can build houses, NASA must build landing strips, so that when the rockets carrying the 3D printers land on the Moon, the spread of escaping dust can be mitigated .
NASA scientists are currently working to develop simulated lunar concrete that can replace materials made on the Moon while they conduct tests on Earth. At Marshall, in an innocuous laboratory located in the bowels of one of their low buildings, scientists perform tests on spheres of simulated lunar dust that have been cast and molded into a small cylinder. These spheres don’t look like much – just a rounded piece of concrete small enough to fit in the palm of your hand – but when subjected to a plasma torch, they can withstand temperatures of 3400 degrees Fahrenheit. The scientists hope that when they build real parts, they will perform well in the conditions of a real rocket landing, where temperatures reach extremely high levels.
Of course, a house isn’t just made of walls – even in space, humans need a door to enter and exit, and once inside, they need objects to s sitting and sleeping, and all the other everyday accessories.
NASA is working with a handful of universities and private companies to create prototypes of furniture and interior design for space, Edmunson said. NASA’s Ames Research Center, working with researchers at Stanford University, even separated certain minerals from synthetic lunar soil to make tiles of different colors, such as green, gray and white, which could even be used for kitchens and bathrooms.
The shared vision of ICON and NASA is of a space-based lunar construction system, called Olympus, controlled on Earth by human technicians skilled in the emerging field of space construction. For these technicians, classes have already started.
“In 10 years, construction technology may be very different, the type of robots we use may be very different, and the artificial intelligence we use will be different. But what we can do now is develop training strategies that prepare construction workers for the future,” notes Amirhosein Jafari, assistant professor of construction technology at Louisiana State University. which is helping to develop simulation-based training for construction teams that would coordinate with robots in space.
His colleague Ali Kazemian is working with NASA on the printing material itself, focusing on waterless concrete fashioned from simulated versions of the rock material that exists on the Moon. Kazemian sees even greater potential in the lunar minerals than just concrete for 3D printing: resources that could be widely used by those left on Earth.
NASA scientists say it is too early to consider the market value of homes on the Moon, or even the ownership structure of lunar habitats. They recognize, however, that the Moon has significant potential for untapped resources and that other nations will undoubtedly be interested in participating.
India landed a spacecraft on the Moon in August, becoming the first nation to land near the south polar region, where the most precious resource – water – is believed to lie in wait. This feat came just two days after a Russian craft crashed before a landing attempt, failing to adjust to its orbit. American astronauts planted their flag on the surface of the Moon in 1969, but two years earlier, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a multilateral treaty that is at the heart of international space law, declared that no one could actually own the Moon.
The Artemis Accords, launched by the United States and seven other founding countries in 2020, reaffirmed the principles of peaceful and cooperative exploration of the Moon. They are now signed by 29 countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Canada and Brazil. But, notably, neither China nor Russia signed.
Defense, ownership and international claims to the Moon and Mars are not the purview of NASA, Werkheiser said. But for now, in this new iteration of the space race, she believes the global community feels aligned.
The Moon is a convenient place for a stopover because NASA believes water on the lunar surface could be converted into rocket fuel. A spacecraft heading from Earth to Mars could make a stop on the Moon, where astronauts could stretch their legs, grab a bite to eat inside a 3D-printed structure, and fill up on gas before departing. get back on the road.
In June in Houston, with great fanfare, four NASA astronauts greeted a gathered crowd before entering the Mars Dune Alpha, a 1,700-square-foot structure 3D printed by ICON with Lavacrete stained the same burnt rust color than Mars itself. They then locked the doors and will spend the next year living in simulated conditions to practice one day living on Mars in reality.