NASA seeks to 3D print building materials out of a new concrete made from lunar dust, allowing for structures that could withstand the temperatures and radiation of the lunar surface.
Space has been called the final frontier, yet humanity’s dreams of living beyond the stars has always been largely relegated to science fiction. It seems that dream may become a reality sooner than expected, however, as NASA recently announced plans to build houses on the moon — and it may happen as soon as 2040.
As the New York Times reported, seven NASA scientists interviewed by the outlet agreed that a 2040 goal is achievable, provided NASA can continue to hit its benchmarks in the coming years.
NASA’s director of technology maturation, Niki Werkheiser, said the agency is “at a pivotal moment,” and that the new program is simultaneously “like a dream sequence” and “inevitable.”
In order to make this dream a reality, NASA has partnered with various industry leaders, universities, and private companies. Notably, NASA has partnered with the construction technology company ICON, which is working to develop a space-based construction system that the agency can use to print all of the structures they would need to establish a permanent presence on the moon, including landing pads and shelters.
ICON, and other prominent companies in the field, have touted the benefits of 3D printing as an efficient and low-cost solution for housing. Here on Earth, ICON has shown the benefits of this technology by incorporating 3D printing techniques in its construction projects, utilizing a proprietary material called Lavacrete.
On the moon, however, construction projects face another issue: dust.
Lunar dust is highly abrasive and toxic when inhaled, but while it certainly poses a problem for those looking to live on the moon, some engineers also see it as a solution.
Some 3D-printed homes on Earth, for example, are made from common soil and minerals found on the surface. If the same sort of technique could be applied on the moon using lunar dust, then those homes and structures would have a better chance of withstanding the extreme temperatures, fluctuating levels of radiation, and micrometeorites that might damage structures made of earthly materials.
Of course, it’s not likely that the average American would end up living on the moon in 2040.
“When we talk about a sustainable human presence, to me that means that you have a lunar settlement and you have people living and working on the moon continuously,” said Raymond Clinton Jr., senior technical adviser of the science and technology office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “What that could be is only up to the imagination of entrepreneurs.”
Just as homes and structures need to be designed specifically for the environment on the moon, so does anything else humanity chooses to send up.
“Chemistry is the same up there, but physics are different,” said Patrick Suermann, interim dean of the School of Architecture at Texas A&M University. “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.”
Fortunately, the Marshall Space Flight Center is equipped with more than a dozen testing chambers, each one designed to simulate the same radiation and thermal vacuum conditions that they would experience in space. ICON’s printer is set to be lowered into the largest chamber in February 2024 to determine if it will indeed be a viable solution for lunar construction.
Over the next few decades, NASA plans to utilize these chambers to test all sorts of conceptual lunar objects. After all, even if they can create a lunar concrete from dust on the moon, humans need other things in their day to day lives. They need places to sit, places to sleep, and doors and windows to enter and exit homes.
“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?” said Jennifer Edmunson, the lead geologist at Marshall Space Flight Center for the project. “We need to start this development now if we’re going to realize habitats on the moon by the 2040 time frame.”
And for many NASA scientists, housing on the moon is just the beginning.
“People talk about humans living on the moon,” said Ali Kazemian, who is working with NASA on developing the printing material. “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.”
Other scientists are even looking towards Mars, with the initial moon construction project being a test run for the process and technology needed to get there. The moon could also serve as a rest stop for future travelers venturing from Earth to Mars — and NASA believes that water from the lunar surface could one day be converted to rocket fuel.
“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,” Werkheiser said. “Everyone is ready to take this step together, so if we get our core capabilities developed, there’s no reason it’s not possible.”
After learning about NASA’s plans to let humans live on the moon, see our gallery of 44 vintage NASA photos from the glory days of space exploration. Or, read the story of Margaret Hamilton, the woman who helped NASA land on the moon.