You won’t find a listing for a home on Mars at Airbnb or Realtor.com; space travelers are going to have to make their own accommodations. That’s part of the impetus for NASA’s 3D-Printed Home Challenge. There isn’t much room in a spacecraft; if explorers could manufacture structures on-site with indigenous materials, that space could be dedicated to other precious resources they need to survive.
The contest is a NASA Centennial Challenges Program competition to manufacture a habitat using local, indigenous materials combined with recyclable materials. This could have benefits closer to home.
“On Earth, the technology could be used wherever affordable housing is needed and access to conventional building materials and skills are limited,” says Monserrate “Monsi” Román, who manages NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program; the microbiologist was a member of the team that built the International Space Station. “Locally available materials—dirt, clay, sand, etc.—could be combined with readily available recyclable materials and used to construct semi-permanent shelters.”
The competition is intended to advance 3D-printed technology for large structures and the use of indigenous/recyclable materials in construction. The challenge is divided into three phases. Phase 1, a design competition, has been completed. Phase 2, the Structural Member Competition, is keying on the material technologies needed to manufacture structural components from indigenous and recyclable materials. Phase 3 will be a head-to-head showdown at a Caterpillar Inc. facility in August, where finalists will print their scaled habitat design for a prize purse of $1.4 million.
Time is short, but the challenge is still open. “Any team can enter the competition at any time between now and the final competition in August, as long as they can demonstrate that their entries meet the requirements of Levels 1 and 2,” Román said.
NASA has a Space Act Agreement with Bradley University to run the challenge. Bradley partnered with Caterpillar; Bechtel, the global engineering, construction, and project management company; and Brick & Mortar Ventures, a venture capital fund.
The challenge has an educational component, giving students a chance to network with faculty and build relationships with mentors. “Real world learning opportunities such as this position students to develop new, innovative, and disruptive ideas that could change the future while enhancing their overall educational experience,” Román said.
NASA has fielded more than 160 entrants. One contestant, Team Ice House, caught the eye of NASA’s Langley Research Center, and they’re collaborating on a “Mars Ice Home”—a torus-shaped dwelling with 3D shell of ice that will be printed with water extracted from Mars. A 3D-printed resin model of the entry is on display at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, in an exhibit titled The Universe and Art.
“One competition goal was to shed a light on the importance of art, as well as science/engineering, in solving technology needs for future NASA missions,” Román said. “Judging from the unprecedented interest we got for this part of the challenge, we are sure that we met that goal.”