The last time a person stepped on the moon was in 1972. Now, the moon has returned to NASA’s space agenda. This time, the agency is not just visiting – it intends to stay.
The BIG concept for Project Olympus includes donut-shaped buildings that could be built entirely with the ICON 3D printer. Credit: Bjarke Ingels Group / ICON
The initiative is called the Olympus Project, after the largest known volcano in the solar system – which adequately conveys the challenge of mountain size facing the team. But Ballard doesn’t just shoot on the moon. By designing a monthly habitat, he hopes to make construction on Earth cleaner, faster and cheaper as well.
The Olympus project
ICON has been using 3D printing technology to build social housing in Mexico and Texas since 2018. Using a concrete-based mixture called a washing machine, its Vulcan printer can print about 500 square meters in 24 hours.
But the moon is a “radically different world,” says Ballard. From Earth, it looks like a clear, smooth, silver globe, but it is subject to high levels of radiation, violent lunar earthquakes, extreme temperature fluctuations and frequent blows by micrometeorites that collapse through its thin atmosphere, he says.
And turning the dust of the moon into a building material is another huge challenge. The team is experimenting with small monthly dust samples in a lab – figuring out how to change their condition with microwaves, lasers and infrared light, while using “little or no additives,” says Ballard.
The research area in the lunar structure proposed by ICON is illuminated with intelligent lights that simulate day and night on Earth, to help astronauts maintain a normal sleep-wake cycle. Credit: Bjarke Ingels Group / ICON
ICON has worked with two architecture firms, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch +), to explore the possibilities of 3D printing technology.
The team studied habitats in extreme environments, including McMurdo Station in Antarctica and the International Space Station, and used their findings to create a series of monthly design concepts, says Ballard.
Architects had to consider how to create a safe and comfortable environment in which to live, says BIG founder Bjarke Ingels.
The SEArch + proposal features a tall, multi-storey structure with 3D-printed protection petals protecting a core that would be built on Earth, while BIG designed a circular structure that could be printed entirely on the Moon .
The BIG design includes a visible membrane of water that covers the walls of the bedroom – “a good insulator against radiation,” says Ingels – which will give astronauts extra protection while sleeping.
Radiation means that the windows must be kept to a minimum, so Ingels carefully chose the location of the only building – which always faces the Earth.
SEArch + has envisioned a base “that will allow astronauts to come and go frequently from the surface,” with landing platforms, roads, warehouses and habitats, says co-founder Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman. Credit: SEArch + / ICON
A “double” structure and external grids, which can be packed with loose monthly dust, provide additional protection against radiation and meteorites, says Ingels.
In addition to living and working spaces for astronauts, the monthly base should incorporate landing platforms, roads and storage depots. Human presence in space has been “engineered” so far, says Ingels. With several industries working together, he hopes the first permanent structure on the moon can be “aspirational” in design, as well as an engineering miracle.
It carries her to the galaxy
The ICON 3D printer, Vulcan, draws the outline of the building one by one. It can print up to 500 square meters in 24 hours. Credit: ICON
However, its goal is a permanent basis from which to explore the moon in depth and test the technology of human survival in space. NASA wants to build facilities to house four astronauts for up to a month, says Skelly. It is an essential first step towards Mars – and not only.
Skelly says it has not yet been decided whether the lunar habitat will be built using 3D printing, but “NASA could provide ICON with additional funding” and give the company the opportunity to test its technology on the lunar surface.
Using the technology of the moon on Earth
Ballard is also optimistic about the terrestrial potential of technology. He believes the results of the Olympus project could help solve the global housing crisis.
ICON’s first 3D construction project was a collaboration with New Story nonprofit in Mexico to build a social housing community for people who lost their homes in the event of a natural disaster. Credit: Joshua Perez / ICON
“It’s kind of funny thinking,” he says, “but it can be proven that the answers to our problems on Earth are on the moon or Mars.”