LIFE ON MARS?

NASA’s $2.5M con­test could re­sult in the ideal liv­ing quar­ters to house fu­ture Earth­lings on the Red Planet

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - By Lisa M. Krieger lkrieger@ba­yare­anews­group.com

Par­adise on the Red Planet! Mas­ter­ful de­sign and mod­ern tech­nol­ogy are uniquely em­bod­ied in this one- of-a-kind, award­win­ning dream house, graced by spec­tac­u­lar panoramic views of Mother Earth.

That could be the real es­tate list­ing for a fu­ture home for Earth­lings on Mars— an epic, tech­ni­cally mind-bog­gling un­der­tak- ing re­cently launched by NASA.

Com­peti­tors in the space agency’s $2.5 mil­lion Habi­tat Chal­lenge are sub­mit­ting plans for what was once a fan­ci­ful sci-fi dream: the de­sign, con­struc­tion and man­u­fac­ture of Mar­tian res­i­dences — a NASA ad­ven­ture that is per­haps only a cou­ple of decades off.

“It’s im­por­tant to build a base and in­fras­truc­ture be­fore hu­mans ar­rive,” said Cur­tis Rodgers

of Brick & Mor­tar Ven­tures, a San Fran­cisco-based venture capital firm that’s help­ing host the con­test with NASA, Bech­tel Corp., Cater­pil­lar and Illi­nois-based Bradley Univer­sity. “We’ll need shel­ter and a whole lot of pro­tec­tion from a whole lot of things.”

Mars has long cap­tured our imag­i­na­tion, con­jur­ing up im­ages of an­cient canals and lit­tle green men with wig­gly an­ten­nae. But now we know it holds far grander things — water, min­er­als, po­lar caps made of dry ice and a vol­cano the size of Ari­zona.

NASA hopes to have as­tro­nauts on the planet by the late 2030s or early 2040s. Pri­vate ven­tures such as Mars One and Elon Musk’s SpaceX hope to send crews sooner.

“That’s not that far away,” said Monsi C. Ro­man, man­ager of NASA’s Cen­ten­nial Chal­lenges, the pro­gram that man­ages the com­pe­ti­tion at the Mar­shall Space Flight Cen­ter in Huntsville, Alabama. “And we need to send equip­ment and stuff up there way be­fore that.”

And once we land, we’ll be there awhile. Un­like quick trips to the moon, a visit to far- away Mars means a months-long com­mit­ment.

For ideas about how to house the as­tro­nauts, NASA is ap­peal­ing to ci­ti­zen in­ven­tors.

“We’re af­ter the things that maybe we didn’t think of, but make so­much sense,” Ro­man said. “If you ask NASA peo­ple what a house on Mars looks like, we’ll all de­sign some­thing sim­i­lar. We wanted some­thing from peo­ple who are free to think dif­fer­ently.”

The space agency seeks cre­ativ­ity, but also prag­ma­tism. The best con­cepts, it hopes, will help cre­ate in­no­va­tive prod­ucts and com­pa­nies here on Earth. A lot is at stake. If our house is dam­aged on Earth, we can couch­surf with friends and fam­ily while wait­ing for the con­trac­tor to showup. On Mars, how­ever, our fate is much more bleak: death by freez­ing, car­bon diox­ide poi­son­ing, ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure or get­ting sucked into space by a huge dust devil.

There’s no di­al­ing 911. And the red planet is in­dif­fer­ent to our suf­fer­ing.

Al­ready, NASA has awarded prizes for the best ar­chi­tec­tural de­signs. House plans were judged on hab­it­abil­ity, in­no­va­tion, func­tion­al­ity, Mars site se­lec­tion and the abil­ity to build the house with 3D print­ers.

First place of 165 en­tries went to a con­cept called “Ice House,” a multi-layer pres­sur­ized and in­flat­able igloo with a ra­di­a­tion-pro­tect­ing shell of ice that en­closed a lan­der habi­tat and gar­dens. It was cre­ated by a team from Pratt In­sti­tute, Par­sons School of De­sign, Carnegie Mel­lon, Columbia and Princeton, among other schools.

“It was purely the most rad­i­cal and beau­ti­ful idea,” Rodgers said.

Win­ners also have been selected in the “best ma­te­ri­als” con­test. Most of the en­tries re­lied on a blend of Mar­tian-like soil and the plas­tic that pro­tects ob­jects within the space­craft. Each ma­te­rial was pres­sure-tested by smash­ing it with a big Cater­pil­lar trac­tor.

“We watched it crush stuff and break it. It was fas­ci­nat­ing,” said judge Ter­ence J. Street, whose Sacra­men­to­based com­pany, Clark Pa- cific, pre­cast 5.8 mil­lion square feet of con­crete for Ap­ple’s new Cu­per­tino head­quar­ters.

First place in that early phase of the con­test went to a 3D-printed scaf­fold dome that weighs only a few pounds but is pro­foundly sturdy, ca­pa­ble of sup­port­ing a Toyota Prius with­out crack­ing.

NASA’s Habi­tat Chal­lenge is now in its fi­nal and most chal­leng­ing phase: Con­struc­tion. Con­tenders must “3D-print” a foun­da­tion and an en­tire home, one-third of its ac­tual size.

Prob­lems other than hous­ing must be solved.

Vis­i­tors to Mars will need a source of power, such as so­lar pan­els. They’ll need fue l for the re­turn flight. They’ll want a hangar to store the pre­cious space­craft. And they’ll need land­ing pads, aprons and roads, so stuff can be­moved around safely.

Mars is a tough con­struc­tion site. It’s dusty, cold and very cor­ro­sive. Print­ers and other con­struc­tion equip­ment must get de­liv­ered and set up. They’ll be largely automated be­cause they have to be­m­an­aged from afar — and sig­nals take eight min­utes to travel to and from Earth.

NASA says what the teams learn could im­prove con­struc­tion on Earth, lead­ing to serendip­i­tous dis­cov­er­ies. Af­ter all, the in­te­grated cir­cuit, mi­cro-electro­mechan­i­cal sys­tems, su­per­com­put­ers, soft­ware and mi­cro­pro­ces­sors were all cre­ated us­ing tech­nolo­gies de­vel­oped for space ex­plo­ration.

“All en­tries have value, even if they don’t win,” Ro­man said. “If it sparks in­ter­est or a con­ver­sa­tion or a new idea, it has value.”

NASA and its part­ners are ac­cept­ing en­tries into Phase 3 of its $2.5 mil­lion com­pe­ti­tion to build a 3D-printed habi­tat for deep space ex­plo­ration, in­clud­ing the space agency’s jour­ney to Mars. The goal is to iden­tify com­pa­nies that can use tech­nol­ogy and robots to re­motely con­struct as­tro­naut fa­cil­i­ties.

In­ter­ested? The dead­line for en­tries is Feb. 15.

COUR­TESY OF TEAM SPACE EX­PLO­RATION AR­CHI­TEC­TURE AND CLOUDS AR­CHI­TEC­TURE OF­FICE

First place of 165en­tries went to a con­cept called “Ice House,” a multi-layer pres­sur­ized and in­flat­able igloo with a ra­di­a­tion-pro­tect­ing shell of ice that en­closed a lan­der habi­tat and gar­dens.

This struc­ture won for “Best Ar­chi­tec­tural De­sign.” The habi­tat, de­signed to be printed as a sin­gle form, cre­ates a shel­ter rem­i­nis­cent of our earth-bound dwellings.

First-place win­ner “Ice House” was “purely the most rad­i­cal and beau­ti­ful idea.”

COUR­TESY OF GAMMA

This struc­ture won the “Peo­ple’s Choice” award.

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