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ICON awarded $57.2 million NASA contract to develop lunar 3D printing construction system

Source:        DateTime:2023.02.09        Hits:

ICON, a company that specialises in additive manufacturing (AM) construction technologies and large-scale 3D printing, has received a contract awarded under Phase III of NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program for its ‘Project Olympus’ programme.

The 57.2 million USD contract builds upon previous NASA and Department of Defense funding for ICON’s ‘Project Olympus’. The project’s goal is to develop space-based construction systems to support planned exploration of the moon and beyond. ICON’s Olympus system is intended to be a multi-purpose construction system primarily using local Lunar and Martian resources as building materials.

Using exotic materials from elsewhere in our solar system is something that students at Washington State University have been researching, using simulated martian regolith combined with titanium.

“To change the space exploration paradigm from ‘there and back again’ to ‘there to stay’, we’re going to need robust, resilient, and broadly capable systems that can use the local resources of the moon and other planetary bodies. We’re pleased that our research and engineering to-date has demonstrated that such systems are indeed possible, and we look forward to now making that possibility a reality,” said Jason Ballard, ICON co-founder and CEO. “The final deliverable of this contract will be humanity’s first construction on another world, and that is going to be a pretty special achievement.”

Highlighting the commonalities between advanced construction on earth and in space, ICON says it will continue to pioneer methods and technologies to solve some of the most vexing construction challenges facing our species. These construction challenges include affordable housing to living on other planets according to ICON.

Supporting NASA’s Artemis program, ICON plans to bring its additive manufacturing hardware and software into space by a lunar gravity simulation flight. It also intends to work with lunar regolith samples brought back from Apollo missions and various regolith simulants to determine their mechanical behaviour in simulated lunar gravity.

According to ICON, the findings will show results that inform future lunar construction approaches for the broader space community, including for critical infrastructure such as landing pads, blast shields and roads. The company says the technology will help to establish the critical infrastructure necessary for a sustainable lunar economy, eventually including longer term lunar habitation.

“In order to explore other worlds, we need innovative new technologies adapted to those environments and our exploration needs,” said Niki Werkheiser, Director of Technology Maturation in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “Pushing this development forward with our commercial partners will create the capabilities we need for future missions.”

NASA has said that through the Artemis program, that the Moon will be the first off-Earth site for sustainable surface exploration. The organisation says that to achieve a sustained lunar presence, robust infrastructure that provides better thermal radiation, and micrometeorite protection will need to be built.

ICON’s development plans are following what the company is referring to as a ‘live off the land’ approach, by prioritising the use of native materials found on the moon for the 3D printing of the structures. The company says that the collective effort with NASA is driven by the need to make humanity a spacefaring civilisation.

In 2021, ICON was also awarded a subcontract through Jacobs supporting NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) as part of NASA’s Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analong (CHAPEA) and delivered the ‘world’s first and only’ simulated Mars surface 3D printed habitat. 

Designed by architecture firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, Mars Dune Alpha is located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and will aid in long-duration science missions.

ICON delivered the ‘first permitted 3D printed home’ in the U.S. in 2018. Since then it has also delivered communities of 3D printed homes in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as barracks for women and men serving the U.S. Army and Air Force, and the Texas Military Department.