The challenge is part of the ongoing Centennial Challenges (2) in which the space agency, in partnership with private groups, invites people to compete in developing technologies crucial for the exploration of space (3).
Past Centennial Challenges have included the development of a flexible astronaut’s glove, lunar mining technology, and lunar or planetary landers.
When men first landed on the moon, during the mission of Apollo 11 (4), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent just over 21 hours on the lunar surface.
By the mission of Apollo 17 (5), Apollo moon walkers were regularly spending three days on the moon, using the Lunar Module as a home away from home.
3D Moon Base
Now, decades after Apollo 17 returned to Earth, NASA’s sights are focused on going beyond low Earth orbit once again.
While some argument still exists whether to return to the moon or travel to an asteroid on the way to the ultimate destination of Mars, the space agency realizes that astronauts will have to live on the surfaces of other worlds for far longer than a few days.
Eventually, humans from Earth will settle the high frontier of space permanently. In order to do that, they will have to have a place to live more viable than a Lunar Module.
The option of sending the pieces of a moon base or Mars base directly from Earth, as was done to build the International Space Station, is prohibitively expensive. Thus, NASA and other space agencies, such as the European Space Agency, are looking at creating at least some of the structure of such bases from local materials, using the emerging technology of 3D printing (6).
3D printing, or as some call it, additive manufacturing, involves building objects layer by layer by spraying melted material, such as plastic, metal, and even ceramics. The technology promises to revolutionize every aspect of human life, creating jet and rocket engines that are lighter and more durable, and even building human organs for transplant, among many other applications.
Habitat in Two Parts
Several years ago, NASA funded a research project with Washington State University (7) to build structures with simulated lunar regolith.
More recently, the European Space Agency announced a concept (8) that involved covering an inflated habitat with a shell of lunar regolith. This technique would provide protection against radiation, the extremes of heat and cold, and the occasional meteor.
The 3D Printed Habitat Challenge will be divided into two parts.
The first part, running through September 27, will involve architectural designs of habitats using 3D printing. The top 30 designs will be judged, and the winner will get a $50,000 cash prize.
The second part will involve building a habitat either with simulated lunar or martian material or simulated material and recycled material. The winner of each will get a $1.1 million cash prize.
NASA hopes that the competition will develop technology that will build homes away from home on the moon and Mars, allowing future astronauts a safe haven while exploring distant worlds. The $2.2 million investment is worth the cost, in the space agency’s opinion.
The idea of using 3D printing not only has applications for building space colonies, but also ultra low-cost housing on Earth. An Italian project called WASP (9) or World’s Advanced Saving Project has proven the concept of using a large 3D printer to create what amounts to mud huts reinforced with fiber within two hours of setup.
The technology has obvious applications for creating housing in the developing world, especially in refugee camps. The mud huts can subsequently be outfitted with amenities such as electric lighting and appliances, perhaps using solar energy.