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NASA awards $60m to Texas biz for 3D printing future Moon base

Icon will have to figure out how to build a machine that uses lunar regolith and operates in lunar gravity

NASA has awarded a $57.2 million contract to Icon, a Texan 3D-printing startup, to build "space-based construction systems" on the surface of the Moon.

Future astronauts will one day live and work on the Moon and NASA is planning to build infrastructure that will enable crews to survive and support themselves sustainably. They need to construct their own tools using lunar resources, so they can grow their own food, communicate with Earth, and explore deeper into the Solar System.


Icon's sketch of what Project Olympus could look like

Enter Project Olympus. ICON has been tasked with building a machine that can 3D print large scale structures, like landing pads, blast shields, and roads on the Moon. The six-year, near-$60 million contract will support the company's efforts to research and develop how to build the Olympus construction system and use in situ materials on the Moon. 

"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," Icon co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard said in a statement. "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 has already built Vulcan, a home-sized 3D printer, capable of printing components used to construct houses in the US and Mexico. Olympus, however, will be a much more challenging system to build. Not only will Icon need to mix a new malleable and strong 3D-printing material made out of lunar regolith, its system will also need to be able to operate in lunar gravity.

"In order to explore other worlds, we need innovative new technologies adapted to those environments and our exploration needs," said Niki Werkheiser, director of technology maturation in NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "Pushing this development forward with our commercial partners will create the capabilities we need for future missions."

In order for items printed by Olympus to be durable, they will need to survive and operate in extreme temperatures, and be protected against radiation and collisions with micrometeorites. Icon plans to test its hardware and software via a lunar gravity simulation flight, and will be experimenting with lunar regolith samples brought back from previous Apollo missions to study their mechanical properties. 

One of its creations for NASA will be put to the test before Olympus. Icon 3D printed Mars Dune Alpha, a 1,700-square-foot simulated Martian habitat, that will be used during NASA's Crew Health and Performance Analog (CHAPEA) mission next year. Astronauts will live inside Mars Dune Alpha and conduct mock spacewalks mimicking working conditions on Mars, whilst staying on Earth inside ​​NASA's Johnson Space Center. ®

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