NASA is embarking on an ambitious plan to return to the Moon, this time with a long-term stay in mind. Their vision includes building lunar houses that can accommodate not only astronauts but also ordinary civilians. The space agency envisions the possibility of the first lunar subdivision for Americans by the year 2040, with Mars colonization also on the horizon. While some in the scientific community express skepticism about NASA’s timeline, the agency remains confident that a 2040 goal for lunar structures is achievable, provided they continue to meet their milestones.
To realize this vision, NASA is planning to send a 3-D printer to the Moon, which will construct structures layer by layer using specialized lunar concrete derived from lunar rock chips, mineral fragments, and surface dust. This ambitious endeavor is made possible through cutting-edge technology and partnerships with universities and private companies.
Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s director of technology maturation, expressed excitement about the progress, stating, “We’re at a pivotal moment, and in some ways, it feels like a dream sequence.” She oversees the development of new programs, machinery, and robotics for future space missions. NASA’s willingness to collaborate with academia and industry leaders has expanded the playing field, setting the stage for success. “Everyone is ready to take this step together, so if we get our core capabilities developed, there’s no reason it’s not possible,” Werkheiser added.
One of the significant challenges of establishing a lunar presence is the abrasive lunar dust, which can cut like glass and is toxic when inhaled. However, Raymond Clinton Jr., senior technical adviser at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, had a visionary idea four years ago. He proposed that just as homes on Earth could be 3-D printed from soil-based materials found here, lunar homes could be constructed using lunar soil. This approach is crucial as the Moon’s extreme temperatures, ranging up to 600 degrees, and the constant threat of radiation and micrometeorites present significant risks to both structures and inhabitants.
NASA’s return to the Moon initiative is named “Artemis,” after the twin sister of Apollo. The first mission, Artemis I, took place last November, sending robots to circumnavigate the Moon before safely returning to Earth. Artemis II, scheduled for November 2024, will carry a crew of four, including the first woman and the first Black person to embark on this historic journey. Artemis III, slated for one year later, will mark the first human landing on the lunar surface, with two additional crewed missions planned by the end of the decade.
Dr. Raymond Clinton acknowledges that he may not live to see average Americans living on the Moon, but for those a few decades younger, it’s a real possibility. He envisions a sustainable human presence on the Moon, with continuous habitation and work, limited only by the imagination of future entrepreneurs.
In pursuit of its 2040 lunar construction goal, NASA has forged a crucial partnership with ICON, a construction technology company headquartered in Austin, Texas. ICON’s collaboration with NASA began in 2020 when they received initial funding, and in 2022, they announced a substantial additional investment of $60 million. This funding aims to support the development of a space-based construction system capable of 3-D printing a wide range of structures, from rocket landing pads to habitats, using concrete mixed on-site. Although these plans currently exist in the form of conceptual renderings, ICON has sought input from architectural experts at firms like the Bjarke Ingels Group and SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture) to conceptualize and design these groundbreaking structures.
The technology of 3-D printing, which builds objects layer by layer based on digital files, has been lauded by ICON and others as a swift and cost-effective solution to address the nation’s housing challenges. ICON employs its proprietary building material, Lavacrete, in its terrestrial construction projects.
Known for its audacious undertakings, ICON is the creator of the Vulcan robotic large-scale construction system, which has been instrumental in constructing some of North America’s first 3-D printed homes. These projects include Austin’s Community First! Village, which encompasses 400 houses for the homeless, as well as affordable, hurricane-resistant homes for impoverished residents of Nacajuca, a remote Mexican town.
Jason Ballard, ICON’s CEO, commented on the venture, stating, “It’s a surprisingly natural progression if you are asking about the ways additive construction and 3-D printing can create a better future for humanity.”
Nonetheless, printing in the depths of space represents a unique set of challenges. Patrick Suermann, interim dean of the School of Architecture at Texas A&M University, working closely with NASA to develop a robot-operated construction system for space, emphasized that while the chemical composition may be similar in space, the physics differ significantly.
Suermann stressed the critical importance of traveling light, as each additional kilogram of weight carried on a rocket to the Moon incurs a staggering cost of about $1,000,000. Transporting materials from Earth to build in space, he argued, is unsustainable. “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.”
Drawing from his experience as a civil engineering professor at the Air Force Academy and his involvement in constructing projects in some of the world’s most remote locations, from Afghanistan’s Helmand Province to the Arctic Circle, Suermann likened building in space to the lessons he learned then—highlighting that the most formidable challenges to life arise not from other humans but from the environment itself. “We built a base out of next to nothing in Afghanistan. It’s all the same, just with more radiation and lower gravity,” he remarked. “And Mother Nature and the solar system are going to win every time.”
Before any equipment can be sent to the Moon, it must undergo rigorous testing on Earth to ensure it can withstand the harsh lunar environment. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center maintains over a dozen testing chambers that subject items to the same conditions they would encounter in space, including radiation and thermal vacuum conditions. In February 2024, ICON’s 3-D printer will be placed in the largest chamber for its initial test, a crucial step in validating its space-readiness.
Victor Pritchett, director of the experimental fluids and environmental test branch at Marshall, emphasized the importance of these chambers, stating, “If you can survive our chambers, then you’re very likely to survive space.”
In addition to testing, NASA faces the challenge of building landing pads on the Moon to mitigate the dust disturbances caused by rocket landings. To address this, NASA scientists are currently developing simulated lunar concrete that can stand in for actual Moon-made material during testing on Earth. In a nondescript laboratory at Marshall, scientists are conducting experiments with spheres of simulated Moon dust that have been molded into small cylinders. While they may appear unremarkable at first glance, these concrete-like samples can withstand temperatures of up to 3,400 degrees Fahrenheit when exposed to a plasma torch. This promising result fuels optimism that the real lunar material will perform well during rocket landings, where temperatures can reach extreme levels.
Jennifer Edmunson, the lead geologist at Marshall Space Flight Center for the project, stressed the urgency of this development, stating, “The first thing that needs to happen is a proof of concept. Can we actually manipulate the soil on the lunar surface into a construction material? We need to start this development now if we’re going to realize habitats on the Moon by the 2040 time frame.”
Constructing lunar habitats involves more than just walls; it entails designing essential elements such as doors, furniture, and interior decor suitable for a space environment. NASA is collaborating with several universities and private companies to create prototypes for space furniture and interior design, according to Dr. Edmunson. Notably, NASA’s Ames Research Center, in partnership with researchers from Stanford University, has even managed to separate minerals from synthetic lunar soil to produce tiles of varying colors like green, gray, and white, which could be used for various purposes, including kitchens and bathrooms.
The shared vision of ICON and NASA is the creation of a space-based lunar construction system called “Olympus,” controlled from Earth by skilled human technicians specializing in the emerging field of space construction. To prepare these technicians for their role, training programs are already underway. Amirhosein Jafari, an assistant professor of construction technology at Louisiana State University, is involved in developing simulation-based training for construction teams that will collaborate with robots in space. He emphasized the need to equip construction workers with the skills required for the evolving future of construction technology and artificial intelligence.
Ali Kazemian, a colleague of Dr. Amirhosein Jafari, is collaborating with NASA to develop the printing material itself. His focus is on creating a waterless concrete derived from simulated lunar rock materials. Dr. Kazemian sees the potential of lunar minerals extending beyond 3-D printing concrete; he envisions these resources being extensively utilized on Earth.
“People talk about humans living on the Moon,” he noted. “But there’s another likely scenario, too. At some point on Earth, we are going to run out of resources. So establishing mines and fully automated factories on the Moon is a possibility too.”
While it’s still too early to determine the market value of lunar homes or the ownership structure for lunar habitats, NASA scientists acknowledge the Moon’s potential as a significant repository of untapped resources. They anticipate that other nations will also express interest in these resources. Recently, India achieved the historic feat of landing a spacecraft near the Moon’s southern polar region, where valuable water resources are believed to be present. This accomplishment followed a Russian craft’s failed landing attempt, underscoring the complexities of lunar exploration.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, a cornerstone of international space law, stipulates that no entity can claim ownership of the Moon. Despite this, the United States launched the Artemis Accords in 2020, a cooperative framework for lunar exploration involving 29 countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Canada, and Brazil. Notably, China and Russia have not signed the accords. While defense, ownership, and international claims regarding the Moon and Mars fall outside NASA’s purview, the agency’s director of technology maturation, Niki Werkheiser, believes that, for now, the global community is aligned in this new space race.
The Moon serves as a practical layover in NASA’s grander scheme, as the agency believes that lunar water can be converted into rocket fuel. This makes the Moon an ideal pit stop for spacecraft traveling from Earth to Mars. Astronauts can pause on the Moon, take respite within 3-D printed structures, and refuel before embarking on the journey to Mars.
In June, with great fanfare, four volunteers acting as NASA astronauts entered the Mars Dune Alpha, a 1,700-square-foot structure 3-D printed by ICON using Lavacrete tinted in the same rusty hue as Mars. They locked the doors and will spend a year living in simulated conditions, preparing for the day when they will inhabit Mars for real.
Maybe in Your Lifetime, People Will Live on the Moon and Then Mars – New York Times
Would You Move to the Moon in 2040? – Architectural Digest
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The United Federation Starfleet Blog is written by Fleet Captain Hal Jordan and is published every Friday. Join in the discussion! Engage with us on Discord at: discord.io/ufstarfleet