NASA confident of 3D printing houses on the moon by 2040

NASA’s plans to 3D print houses on the moon are on track, as long as the agency can continue to hit its benchmarks, The New York Times has reported.  

Through an ongoing collaboration with Texas-based 3D printing construction firm ICON, NASA hopes to 3D print homes on the moon by 2040 as part of its Artemis mission. 

This partnership has already seen ICON receive $30 million in NASA funding back in 2020, and an additional $57.2 million in 2022, to support its Project Olympus initiative. Through Project Olympus, the Texas-based company is working to develop a 3D printer that can fabricate buildings out of concrete made from rock chips, mineral fragments, and dust readily available on the lunar surface.  

NASA and ICON’s mission seeks to create houses that are not only suitable to NASA astronauts, but can also be used by ordinary citizens, with the long term goal of creating a permanent human colony on the moon and eventually Mars.  

“We’ve got all the right people together at the right time with a common goal, which is why I think we’ll get there,” Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s director of technology maturation, told The New York Times. “Everyone is ready to take this step together, so if we get our core capabilities developed, there’s no reason it’s not possible.”

Digital rendering of a 3D printed lunar building. Image via ICON.

NASA and ICON’s lunar construction mission

A number of architectural firms have also collaborated with ICON as part of Project Olympus, including both Bjarke Ingels Groups (BIG) and SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture). 

Whilst the project’s plans are currently mainly in the form of digital renderings, the NASA and ICON-led team will soon begin extensive testing to develop a 3D printer that can operate in the harsh lunar environment. Called Olympus, this space-based construction 3D printer will be controlled on Earth by expert space construction technicians.

According to the New York Times report, weight is a key factor, with each additional kilogram of weight on a lunar rocket costing around $1,000,000. High-radiation and lower gravity are also said to pose significant challenges.    

NASA’s Huntsville-based Marshall Space Flight Center possesses over a dozen testing chambers that can mimic the same radiation and thermal vacuum conditions of non-earth environments. ICON’s 3D printer is set to be subjected to testing within the largest of these chambers in February 2024.

NASA scientists are also reportedly developing a simulated lunar concrete that can mimic lunar dust-based material while testing is conducted on Earth. Marshall-based NASA scientists are said to be testing spheres simulated moon dust that has been poured and cast into a small cylinder. According to The New York Times, this material has been shown to withstand temperatures of 3,400℉.    

In addition to the construction of the physical buildings, NASA is also working with universities and private companies to create lunar-constructed furniture and interior design prototypes. For instance, NASA has collaborated with Stanford University researchers, who have reportedly separated minerals in synthetic lunar soil to make tiles that could be used in kitchens or bathrooms.   

With Artemis I having successfully circled the moon in 2022, Artemis II is scheduled to send a four-human crew to lunar orbit in November 2024. This mission will be followed in 2025 by Artemis III, which will land humans on the moon for the first time since 1972. Two additional crewed missions are planned before the decade’s end, with lunar-based 3D printed construction expected to be up and running by 2040. 

ICON is working as part of Project Olympus to develop a novel method of 3D printing on the moon. Image via ICON.

Moon-based 3D printing  

NASA and ICON’s Project Olympus is not the only initiative leveraging additive manufacturing for construction on the lunar surface. Last year, technology design agency AI SpaceFactory unveiled designs for NASA’s 3D printed lunar outpost called LINA. The design and testing of LINA forms part of NASA’s REACT project, which seeks to advance the technologies and materials created for the agency’s 3D Printed Habitat Challenge.

AI SpaceFactory modified its original polymer, made with simulated martial regolith, to instead use actual lunar regolith. This material has undergone testing in NASA’s vacuum chambers, which will further inform the development of sustainable 3D printers capable of constructing large lunar-based structures. 

Elsewhere, the University of New South Wales collaborated with Australian construction start-up Luyten to fast-track the R&D of a 3D printer capable of manufacturing lunar structures. As part of the ‘Meeka Project,’ the organizations partnered to expedite the development and testing of a gantry-mounted lunar regolith 3D printer called ‘Platypus Galacticas.’ This system is designed to rapidly construct moon-based infrastructure measuring up to 9m X 12m.      

Back in 2019, Russian-based company Roscosmos confirmed plans to support long-term lunar missions by 3D printing structures from on-site raw materials. According to Roscosmos Chief Dmitry Rogozin, Russian cosmonauts are set to land on the Moon for the first time in 2030. 

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Featured image shows a rendering of a 3D printed lunar building. Image via ICON.