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What NASA’s 3D-printed moon base means for the rest of humanity

Back in 2021, Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) announced its collaboration with construction technology company ICON and NASA to create Mars Dune Alpha, a 3D-printed structure designed to simulate life on Mars.

The 1,700-square-foot “habitat” essentially aims to help NASA understand the physical and mental challenges that may impact crew on a long-term space mission and ultimately prepare humans to live on the red planet. Comprising four private crew quarters, a shared living space, and work, medical and food-growing stations, the ceiling heights of the infrastructure vary in order to ensure each room is visually unique to avoid spatial monotony and crew member fatigue.

Featuring customisable lighting, temperature, and sound control, Mars Dune Alpha was dubbed the “highest-fidelity simulated habitat ever constructed by humans.” During the development of the structure—which is now set to be used during NASA’s Crew Health and Performance Analog (CHAPEA) mission in 2023—experts unlocked the potential of 3D printing and deemed it an essential part of humanity’s toolkit to becoming a multi-planetary species.

Come late 2022, ICON then landed a $57.2 million contract for NASA’s Project Olympus—the space agency’s efforts to develop 3D-printed bases on the moon using materials solely found on its surface. Here’s why the project matters and what it means for our dreams to expand into the beyond.

ICON and the promise of a long-term lunar presence

Known for building cheap 3D-printed homes and military barracks on Earth, Austin-based startup ICON was founded by Jason Ballard in 2017 with the aim of solving the global housing crisis. Constructing neighbourhoods in several US states and Mexico, the company builds homes with a proprietary material between mortar and concrete, printed in place using ICON’s machines.

Now, the startup is hoping to bring the material cost for building structures on the lunar surface down to zero. “If we’re going to be the advanced civilization we say we are and think we are, we ought to be better at sheltering ourselves,” Ballard said in an interview with Payload. “We must have ways of sheltering ourselves that don’t ruin this planet in the first place.”

As part of the $57.2 million Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract, ICON is set to take its 3D printing technology for a demonstration on the moon in 2026—assuming that NASA’s schedule for its Artemis mission, which seeks to land the first woman and first person of colour on the moon, remains intact.

According to Ballard, the demonstration will use actual lunar regolith—the rocks and dust that make up the surface of the moon—to build a structure that meets NASA’s strength requirements. While the startup uses water-based material to build structures on Earth, water sublimates on the moon. It would also be expensive to transport additives to mix in with lunar regolith all the way from Earth.

“If you tried to plan a lunar settlement or a moon base, and you had to bring everything with you every time you wanted to build a new thing, it’s like another $100 million,” Ballard said. “But once you’ve got a system that can build almost anything—landing pads, roadways, habitats—and it uses local material, you are probably two or three orders of magnitude cheaper to build a permanent lunar presence than you would be in any other way that we can think of.”

In 2021, Doctor Aled D. Roberts from the Future Biomanufacturing Research Hub announced that the perfect solution to building structures on both Mars and the moon is… human blood. “[Like cows], humans also produce this protein which can be used to stick together moon dust, Mars dust or sand—and any space mission which is crewed would have humans present,” Roberts told SCREENSHOT at the time.

In a paper published in the journal Materials Today Bio, the expert and his team discovered that human blood protein, when paired with both Moon dust and Mars dust, created a very strong, concrete-like material. “We found how it was sticking together, and based on our understanding, found that compounding this with Urea (from human urine) increased the effect of the bonding mechanism,” Roberts said.

Although he delivered a healthy dose of realism into the sci-fi-esque scenario by stating that the mixture would probably only be used for motors or to stick sandbags together, Roberts also acknowledged how there’s a significant delay in communications between Mars and Earth. “It can take around 40 minutes for communication between the two planets—if the astronauts are in a life-threatening emergency, they would essentially have to fend for themselves,” he explained. “It’s useful to know that they could potentially make strong hard materials using their own blood and urine.”

Back to ICON, the startup claims that it can construct its 3D-printed moon bases by first fine-tuning the printer’s laser based on the chemical makeup of the specific sample of regolith being used, then laying down a layer of regolith, using the laser to melt the regolith into a ceramic structure, laying down another layer of regolith on top, and rinsing and repeating. ICON has already tested this approach using simulated regolith in vacuum demonstrations on Earth.

Insights for a better future on Earth

When it comes to space technologies, it’s worth noting that they almost always have a trickle-down effect which eventually influences advancements back on Earth. For Roberts, he believed his research could help humanity find a valuable substitute for concrete, which presently accounts for 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“This is just the start, we could potentially further develop this concept into a technique which uses plant-based proteins or other sustainable resources,” the expert shared. “This could help us find a relatively low-carbon alternative for construction materials like cement, tiles, all that kind of stuff.”

In the case of ICON, Ballard also stated that insights gathered from the 3D-printed lunar project can help solve multiple crises on our home planet. “If you get better at building houses in difficult, harsh, remote environments like the moon, you probably are also going to be better at it on Earth,” he told Payload. “And getting better housing on Earth is also a profound opportunity and problem to solve.”

A number of other architectural firms are also exploring humanity’s presence on the moon as we speak. In 2017, a collection of projects visualised life on the astronomical body for a competition dubbed Moontopia. Two years later, Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) revealed that it had teamed up with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to design an “inflatable moon village” as “the first permanent human settlement on the lunar surface.”

Let’s just hope that, this time around, there won’t be a rogue group of interns who pocket some of the extraterrestrial rocks to take back home, place under their pillows, and later boast that they literally had “sex on the moon.”

NASA intern stole more than $20 million worth of moon rocks so that he could have ‘sex on the moon’

Turns out it is actually possible for someone to ‘physically’ love you to the moon and back, because back in 2002—we’d like to draw your attention to a story that needs more airtime, because it’s ridiculous. A 25 year old intern at NASA, Thad Roberts, stole more than $20 million worth of moon rocks and Martian meteorites, all so that he could have sex with his girlfriend on the moon. There’s a lot more to it though, here’s everything you need to know.

The moon rock heist was actually attempted by a group of four rogue NASA interns, not just Roberts, although he acted as ringleader. Also involved in the audacious crime were Gordon McWhorter, Tiffany Fowler and Shae Saur. Roberts had been accepted onto NASA’s internship program at 23 years old. He was a triple major in physics, geology and geophysics as well as the founder of the Utah Astronomical Society, with a strong determination to be the first person on Mars. Effectively, he was a rising star with a bright career ahead of him, but let’s just say his trajectory changed drastically, because an inner rebellion took over his sparkly spaced future.

In the summer of 2002, the group of interns managed to steal more than $20 million worth of moon rocks and Martian meteorites right from under the space giant NASA’s nose, but was caught by the FBI in Florida which led him to spending six years in prison. As for the rest of the group, “Being an astronaut is something I had planned to do and aspired to do my entire life,” Saur told the Houston Chronicle before she was sentenced. “My own actions have shattered that dream.” The two Texan women, Fowler and Saur, were given three years probation, as well as required to pay $9,000 back to NASA.

Roberts, Fowler and Saur reportedly broke into the NASA lab and used a dolly to wheel the 600 pound safe to a loading dock and into a Jeep Cherokee. “The 600-pound safe was broken into at a Clear Lake motel and later discarded.” Was it really all to have a saucy romp among the moon rocks though?

Well, as wonderful as that narrative sounds, it isn’t exactly 100 per cent true. The sex on moon rock action happened by chance, but his true intention was to make money out of selling the rocks. The moon rock samples and the meteorite were hidden in Fowler’s apartment while the group continued to work at NASA as if nothing had happened, then a week later—Roberts and Fowler, who were at the time sleeping together (a norty little affair) drove to a hotel in Orlando, Florida, to complete the sale. The facts are understandably a little murky, but according to The Atlantic, Roberts placed a few vials of moon rocks under Fowler’s hotel pillow, and they had sex without her knowing that they were actually there. The confusion perhaps comes down to the fact that he had previously embellished and joked about the detail in previous interview, telling CBS News that “having sex on top of moon rocks was uncomfortable.”

Investigations were immediately underway once the rocks were stated as missing, but the undercover wheeling-and-dealing that Roberts had planned was also in full swing. Roberts had started to sell off these priceless rocks, which he described on the website of the Mineralogy club of Antwerp, Belgium as “the world’s largest private and verifiable Apollo rock collection.” Red flags? Apparently not, because Roberts persisted. The sale prices ranged from $1,000 to $5,000 per gram.

Later, discovered emails between Roberts and buyers contained him saying “As you well know, it is illegal to sell Apollo lunar rocks in the United States, This obviously has not discouraged me since I live in the United States. However, I must be cautious that this deal is handled with delicacy in that I am not publicly exposed.” As stated by CBS News, “We found that the emails were coming, initially, from the University of Utah,” said Nick Nance, one of the FBI’s investigators on the case, and continued that “they started coming from Johnson Space Center, which lent credibility to the fact that these could be actual lunar samples that are going to be presented for sale.”

So, on July 20, 2002, which (probably intentionally) happened to be the 33rd anniversary of the first moon walk, Roberts and Fowler arrived in Orlando, where they expected to sell their stash of stars. The buyers in Orlando were FBI agents, and the heist was… well, kaput!

Having done his time in jail, which granted him a vast amount of time to think, Roberts continued to pave his way through space. He was invited to do a TEDx talk based on a book that he wrote in prison based on Einstein’s Intuition: Visualizing Nature in Eleven Dimensions. A biography was also published, written by Ben Mezrich, titled: Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History. Then a documentary by Icon Films aired on the National Geographic channel in 2012. The rest of the group have faded from public view.

So why would someone so assumingly clever do such a stupid thing? Well, “He really wasn’t a criminal,” said Mezrich. “He didn’t think through the after-effects. I asked him dozens of times over the year, ‘How did you think you were going to get away with this?’ And he said it just wasn’t part of the thought process… He only thought of it as a college prank; he thought, ‘Even if I do get caught, what’s the worst they’ll do to me?”

Roberts, in a brief explanation of character, seems to be the epitome of ‘a rebel with a cause’, his unfurling journey wasn’t shattered or stained by his past either. His imagination may have fuzzed over his reason in the past, but apparently his imagination hasn’t faltered—it has possibly heightened, he concluded on his dreams for the future to The Atlantic and stated that, “I think I’m gonna still make a run for space. The private industry is still maybe going on. This might be the big thing of our lifetime and if it is, I’m gonna try to find a way to go.” and added that, “Maybe I can go pick up a moon rock, legally this time! One that I can keep. Put on my mantle and not have to keep it a secret.” Good idea, Roberts.