Austin-based Icon looks to the moon in latest construction project
Austin-based Icon has taken on a number of ambitious projects in Austin and around the country through its work to develop construction technology and build efficient affordable housing.
But its latest venture truly shoots for the moon.
In an undertaking that might sound closer to science fiction than reality, the company will be working to research and develop technology for building habitable structures in space using 3-D printing technology.
Through a government-funded research program and NASA, Icon is developing new technology that will be used to create off-world construction to make it possible for future astronauts to explore, live and work directly on the lunar surface.
The announcement comes just a couple of years after the company 3-D-printed its first home in 2018. CEO Jason Ballard co-founded Icon with the goal of reimagining construction and homebuilding by using technology to make more affordable, resilient and sustainable dwellings.
Ballard said the newest mission fits with the company’s overall goal of using new construction technologies to advance humanity.
“This is one of the most ambitious construction projects ever envisioned in the history of humanity,“ he said. ”Anything we build on the moon will be there thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years, because there are no eroding forces on the moon.“
Icon received funding from a Small Business Innovation Research contract, including funding from NASA, for the endeavor. The company will be adding a dedicated team to focus solely on the project.
“It's exciting to see NASA committed to a permanent presence on the moon, and it's exciting to see them investing in the technologies that will be necessary to make that happen,“ Ballard said.
In addition to NASA, Icon also will work with two architecture firms — BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, an international firm, and SEArch+ (Space Exploration Architecture), which makes “human-centered” designs for space exploration.
The project comes as NASA launches its Artemis program, which aims to land a woman and man on the moon by 2024. NASA plans to use advancements made by the program for future missions to Mars.
As part of the Artemis program, NASA is working with commercial and international partners — including Icon — to establish a sustainable Moon exploration effort by the end of the next decade. The partnership builds upon technology Icon first demonstrated during NASA’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge in 2018.
Icon’s aim is to have early prototypes of its construction system around 2025, with a full-scale system a few years later. The research and development also is aimed at devising similar technology for future structures on Mars.
Ballard said the end result will be an automated construction system very much like the one the company uses on earth, but it will be radiation hardened, and have a significantly lower mass so that it can fit on lunar landers.
Beyond his interest and lifelong career in construction, Ballard said he also has a fascination for space, and he’s working towards a masters in space resources.
He said he stays up past midnight most nights just learning and planning for the project, and he keeps early design concepts on the walls of his office to remind himself that this is real.
“It's easy to get off of these phone calls with NASA and feel like it’s a fun science-fiction discussion,” he said. “We could live 100 lifetimes and never get an opportunity like this. It is as exciting and romantic as you think.”
Building on the moon, and ultimately on Mars, presents challenges different from Earth-bound construction, because gravity, temperature, pressure and other conditions aren’t the same.
“A lot of adapting needs to happen to make the machinery work on the moon, but then also the materials we will have to work with are quite different,” Ballard said.
Unlike the 3-D printing technology that Icon uses on Earth, which heavily relies on materials that have a water base, Icon is instead looking to existing materials already on the moon as a way to build. Lunar materials, like basalt, melt well into strong, resilient materials that are good at insulating and are radiation absorbing, Ballard said.
He said water turns straight to gas on the moon, rendering it useless for construction. Beyond that, it’s a crucial resource for both life and rocket fuel. The company is instead turning to novel methods, including microwaves and lasers, and relying on lunar materials, which also will help reduce shipping costs.
A resulting living structure likely will be about the size of a submarine or the International Space Station, with at least 500 square feet per person — or 2,000 square feet for a four person crew, Ballard said. From there the structure could be expanded.
The team will also look at building infrastructure such as roads, landing and launch pads using the same technology.
“Our early research indicates that we should be able to do this, we should be able to use the materials of the moon and Mars to create very effective, very safe, very high capability, infrastructure that enable permanent settlement of the lunar surface and ultimately at Mars,” Ballard said.
The company also is continuing its work on earth, Ballard said, where it’s focusing on affordable housing and homeless problems. In August, Icon raised $35 million to accelerate growth and scale its 3-D printing technology.
But he expects the company’s space-related research to directly benefit its efforts here, by expanding its knowledge of efficient building methods.
“I think it's going to take space-age technology for us to finally solve homelessness and to finally get the upper hand in the global housing challenges that we face,” Ballard said. “It may just turn out to the answer to many of our problems on Earth are on the moon.”
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