LIFE ON MARS?
NASA’s $2.5M contest could result in the ideal living quarters to house future Earthlings on the Red Planet
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.
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.”
This structure won the “People’s Choice” award.