Inside NASA’s Challenge to 3D Print Future Habitats on Mars


Right now, you’re looking at renderings
of human settlements on Mars. These designs were part of NASA’s 3D Printed
Habitat Challenge, a 4-year long competition aimed at engineering homes for another planet. The brightest architects and engineers from
across the globe put their skills to the test, culminating this year in a nail-biting finale. Two teams went head to head to print their
designs live in front of NASA judges. “Keep going keep going” “8..7..6..” Vying to prove they have what it takes to
build humanity’s home on Mars. Mars has captivated our imagination for hundreds
of years. It’s proximity to us, striking resemblance
to Earth, and potential to harbor life has made it the target of many robotic missions. But the surface of Mars is not as Earth-like
as it might seem. Every day the temperature swings a lot. It’s kind of like in the desert on Earth where
you have very very cold nights and very, very hot days, except it’s like you know, way worse
than that (laughs). Like minus 70 degrees celsius at night worse. The planet can’t retain heat, because its
atmosphere is very thin. On Mars, the atmosphere is less than 1% the
density of earth’s. So we can basically treat it like a vacuum. That, combined with Mars’s lack of a magnetosphere,
means there’s almost no protection against dangerous solar and cosmic radiation. To survive, we need a habitat that can provide
protection from this extreme environment. And because importing building materials from
earth could be prohibitively expensive, we’ll most likely have to build it there with on-site
materials using 3D-printing. At architecture firm AI Space Factory, Jeffrey
and his team came up with MARSHA. Printing a cylinder vertically is actually
the ideal shape for a 3D printer, because it doesn’t have any sharp corners. It’s a very gentle, predictable, safe shape
to build. The interior of the habitat is pressurized,
and that means that it wants to sort of blow up like a balloon. And so, you need a shape that can efficiently
hold back all that pressure. So, we knew that we wanted to reduce the diameters
at the ends to reduce the structural stresses at those spots. That kind of gives us this resulting egg shape. After deciding the shape, they had to decide
what to make it out of. The material is really where the rubber meets
the road. Because you have to choose a material that
is up for the challenge and you have to choose a material that you could conceivably make
once you get to Mars. And we chose the polymer option because it
conferred a number of advantages. For one it doesn’t require water. Water would be a very precious resource on
Mars. Another major advantage to the polymer type
we were using, which technically are called thermoplastics, is that you could reverse
their curing process if you needed to. So with these plastics you could reheat them
and remelt them and redeposit them. The team then carefully designed the floor
plan, optimizing each room for use by astronauts. They also added a rover docking port, windows,
and a skylight. We qualified for the first level, just barely,
and then we were able to catch up into the second construction level, where we got second
place. Once we got that award and that prize money,
we just threw it right back into the project. That brought us to the final week-long showdown. NASA invited the top two teams to print a
1/3 scale version of their habitat live, in front of a team of judges. All of the testing we did up until that point
was remote, and it was also just piecemeal. We never had a chance to print the actual
prototype that we needed to print before we needed to print it (laughs) I think one thing
we all knew was that when placed under the circumstances and forced to troubleshoot,
that we would figure it out. The question is, how much would we have to
figure out during the competition? (laughs) The teams had two days to set up their machines
before printing began. Then they had just 30 hours split over the
course of 3 days to print a complete habitat. In an ideal scenario, you basically press
the play button, and your building just builds itself. Of course, in reality, we were active supervisors
to this whole process. And the judges had stopwatches. Every time we had to make a change, even if
it was just a cautionary change, we would notify the judges. They would start the clock and count that
as an intervention. Jeffrey: You’re the guy? Judge: Yup I’m the guy. Have you started? Alright Jeffrey: We have started. The first day was maybe the most nerve-racking
because it was the foundation. The foundation is where everything else rests,
and if that’s not off to a good start, then your whole habitat may be tilted. So we were very closely watching how that
unfolded. Interviewer: So you were stressed? Jeffrey: Oh. The question is, did I show that I was stressed? I definitely had to stay cool because frantic
energy is contagious. (laughs) The second day was basically steady printing. We’ve gotten up to our highest we’ve ever
printed which is here. Previously we printed about this high. And now we’ve broken our own record. Tomorrow we’re printing the whole day, until
it gets to about 3 feet wide which is this. So that’s gonna be the diameter at the end. It’s got a ways to go. Interviewer: Good day? Jeffrey: Yes, it’s a good day. On day three, because we switched to a single
layer thickness, we were able to print the next seven feet in one day, which normally
took us two whole days to do. That was definitely the most intense day. As the clock ticked closer to the finish line,
there was just one task left: placing the skylight. We knew that the more layers we printed, the
better chances the skylight had of sitting on top because it was a tapering form. If we had stopped too soon, the skylight would
just fall through. “Stop, slow!” “Ready?” “Keep going keep going keep going.” We sort of released the skylight at 6:00 PM. “Keep going keep going, disengage!” And it almost stayed in the spot. There was some sort of uh premature celebration,
and then. (crash) Once the time was up, the two teams had to
surrender their designs. “Alright (claps)” After that it was like,
“What could I have done differently for that skylight to not have fallen?” I’m sure everyone was going through those
thoughts as well. And then, you know, you go to dinner with
your team, and celebrate just the madness of having gotten this far. The judges subjected the designs to a series
of structural tests, and then it was time to announce the winner. First place goes to team AI Space factory! [Applause] Being announced the winner was, it was, it
had felt like I graduated from a four year degree where I got accepted into this program,
and I now had my master’s you know. It was very much like a chapter in my life
that I felt was closing. Though the competition is over, the company’s
plans for MARSHA continue. It may be decades before humans go to Mars,
but the sustainable building technologies AI SpaceFactory developed for space might
soon find a home on Earth. TERA is a habitat for Earth, made from the
literal parts of MARSHA that we won the competition with. It’s going to be a fully functional home in
the town of Garrison, New York, just about an hour north of where we have our offices
in Manhattan. We’re doing it to show that we can build sustainably,
and we can build in a new way, and take space technology and apply it to Earth. We’re living in a very interesting moment,
where there’s a space race going on, but there’s also a climate crisis. And, these two things are very often pitted
against each other, as a dichotomy, as a choice. Either we go to Mars and go to the moon, or
we stay here and fix Earth. I really think that it’s a false dichotomy. There are ways that you can literally take
what you’ve done in space and apply it here, and introduce new ways of thinking about sustainability.

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