ICON, a construction and 3D printing company, has received a NASA award to develop space-based construction systems. This will support planned exploration of the Moon and beyond. Read all about this futuristic project here.
Humanity’s first constructions on the Moon
ICON is a company focused on advanced construction technologies and large-scale 3D printing. In November 2022, it received a contract from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research programme of 57.2 million USD. This will allow the company to further its space-based construction technology, while also targeting the first-ever construction on another planetary body by humans. The idea is to research and develop space-based construction systems to support the planned exploration of the Moon.
The Olympus system by ICON is a multi-purpose construction system for lunar and Martian resources to be used as building materials. This system will help further the efforts of NASA and other organisations to establish a presence on the Moon.
Jason Ballard, ICON’s co-founder and CEO, said: “To change the space exploration paradigm from ‘there and back again’ to ‘there to stay,’ we’re going to need robust, resilient, and broadly capable systems that can use the local resources of the Moon and other planetary bodies. We’re pleased that our research and engineering to-date has demonstrated that such systems are indeed possible, and we look forward to now making that possibility a reality. The final deliverable of this contract will be humanity’s first construction on another world, and that is going to be a pretty special achievement.”
ICON: Advanced construction in space
Advanced construction on earth and in space have many things in common, according to ICON. The company pioneers methods and technologies that solve construction challenges. These range from affordable housing to living on other planets. As a young and growing company, ICON has a mission to revolutionise the construction industry “both on Earth and off”.
Together with NASA’s Artemis programme, ICON intends on bringing its hardware and software into space with a lunar gravity simulation flight. By working with lunar regolith samples from Apollo missions and regolith simulants, the company hopes to determine the best mechanical behaviour for lunar gravity. These findings will help inform future lunar construction approaches for “the broader space community”. This could include critical infrastructure like landing pads, blast shields, and roads. In the longer term, critical infrastructure helps to establish a sustainable lunar economy which might eventually lead to lunar habitation.
Additive manufacturing will be key for the 3D construction in space. In this version of 3D printing, software directs the printer to deposit material in precise layers in order to build something. The ICON contract builds upon funding that ICON and architecture studio BIG received in 2020 to develop a way to create 3D-printed buildings for living on the Moon.
The vision for Olympus
With the NASA grant, ICON will focus on their Olympus system, the first multi-purpose lunar construction system. Considering that NASA has signalled its intentions to make the Moon the first off-Earth site for sustainable surface exploration, a sustainable presence on the Moon requires more than rockets. Robust infrastructure is necessary to provide better thermal, radiation, and micrometeorite protection.
ICON’s plans for the programme are following a “live off the land” approach, which means using the native materials found on the Moon. The efforts are based on the idea of making humanity a spacefaring civilisation. To that end, ICON has already developed the world’s first simulated Mars surface 3D-printed habitat. Funded by Jacobs, supported by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, and designed by architecture firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, “Mars Dune Alpha” is located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. It will aid in long-duration science missions.
3D printing homes
ICON also works on Earth. The company is known for its advanced 3D printing technology for homebuilding. It has delivered the first 3D-printed homes in the US in 2018, followed by housing projects in Mexico and barracks for the US Army and Air Force. This 3D printing is based on the company’s proprietary Vulcan technology, which produced resilient and energy-efficient homes. By printing rather than construction, houses are faster to build, produce less waste and allow more design freedom.
The new, large 3D printer developed with NASA would be transported to the Moon, where it could use lunar materials to construct the lunar base. This eliminates the need to transport construction materials to the Moon. ICON is aiming to create a robust, resilient, and broadly capable system for construction on other planets and moons.
Apart from ICON and BIG, other architecture studios are also exploring lunar construction. For example, SOM and the European Space Agency have designed a settlement for living on the Moon that consists of inflatable modules. And British architecture studio Foster + Partners recently unveiled a proposal to 3D print building on the Moon.