Concept render by SEArch+
Austin-based ICON is known for its innovative construction projects here on Earth, but its newest major project is truly out of this world.
The developer of advanced construction technologies like robotics, software, and building materials was recently awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract, including funding from NASA itself. It will help the company to further its research and development for a construction system that could support the exploration of the Moon.
“Project Olympus” and NASA’s Lunar Ambitions
NASA’s Project Artemis, aims to see crewed spacecraft return to the lunar surface by 2024, part of a long-term effort to establish a sustainable human presence there, a first for humankind. ICON has dubbed its contribution to Artemis “Project Olympus.”
“Building humanity’s first home on another world will be the most ambitious construction project in human history and will push science, engineering, technology, and architecture to literal new heights,” said Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of ICON in a company statement.
With atmospheric conditions radically different than on Earth, building on the Moon is no simple task. ICON will have to factor in gravity, pressure, and temperature into its designs to ensure the project’s success. The firm has partnered with two award-winning architects, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group and SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture). SEArch+ has longstanding ties with NASA’s Johnson Space Center Human Habitability Division, while BIG has contributed to several conceptual projects for Mars and the Moon, making their experience extremely relevant to the project.
ICON From the Earth to the Moon
Here on the planet surface, ICON started its path to the stars with the 2018 delivery of the first fully permitted 3D-printed home in the US. Since then, solving global homelessness has been one of the company’s most important missions.
“From the very founding of ICON, we’ve been thinking about off-world construction. It’s a surprisingly natural progression if you are asking about the ways additive construction and 3D printing can create a better future for humanity. I am confident that learning to build on other worlds will also provide the necessary breakthroughs to solve housing challenges we face in this world,” Ballard said.
Unique Challenges of Lunar Construction
Project Olympus will be the first of its kind, so ICON will have many challenges to face. One obvious obstacle is sourcing the building materials as you can’t exactly load up a space shuttle with lumber and rebar and launch it into space. While 3D printing typically uses water-based materials, there’s no known liquid water on the Moon. To get around this and ensure sustainability, Ballard told The Statesman that ICON would look at materials that are readily available on the Moon like basalt, which absorbs radiation and has insulating properties. Other natural resources on the lunar surface, such as ice and even moon dirt, will also need to be leveraged.
The Moon’s atmosphere is another concern as it might affect equipment designed to work in Earth’s atmosphere. Ballard conceded that “a lot of adapting needs to happen to make the machinery work on the Moon.” Much of the work itself will be done not by construction workers in space suits but by using an automated system similar to what the company already uses on Earth. However, they will require some revamping: They need to be fortified to resist radiation and much lighter to fit inside a lunar lander.
ICON is also partnering with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Together, they will test simulated lunar soil with various printing and processing technologies to develop a 3D printer that can create structures on the Moon, using resources in plentiful supply.
The eventual lunar living structure will be around the size of a submarine with about 500 square feet per person, 2,000 square feet intended to support a crew of four. Ballard told The Statesman that the system would be modular, so it would allow for adding more structures later.
The company says it plans to have early prototypes of its Olympus Construction System by 2025, with a few more years needed for the full-scale system. The same research and development for Project Olympus will also be used as a basis for structures on Mars in the future.