Artist's impression of a Mars settlement (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikimedia)

Artist’s impression of a NASA Mars settlement (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikimedia)

NASA and America Makes jointly launched a $2.25 million competition to design a 3D-printed home for astronauts on Mars at last week’s Bay Area Maker Faire. The hope is that 3D printing and the incorporation of spacecraft waste and materials from the alien world can in turn help address affordable housing on Earth.

As the site for the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge explains:

If we can solve for the need to ship materials, we can develop solutions for a variety of scenarios, including those for humanitarian and disaster relief efforts on earth, wherever affordable housing is needed and access to conventional building materials is limited.

NASA has a list of instances in which research for space travel also transformed life on the home planet, including early spacecraft structural analysis that was later expanded to cars and roller coasters, and research into water purification for the International Space Station that was implemented for clean drinking water on Earth. So, while throwing such big bucks at a crowdsourced project might seem frivolous, there is a potential that the results could accelerate the development of technology applicable to our daily lives, especially considering the extreme design challenges of Mars and the incentive to experiment with unconventional building materials like planetary dust.

The competition is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges project, which was started in 2005 and offers monetary awards for public ideas, bringing nongovernmental sources into the organization’s technology development. From a cynical perspective, it’s a great way to get a lot of ideas without a lot of money; from a more positive one, it’s also a way to diversify the ideas that are being considered for our future space travel, whether that means better astronaut gloves or lunar landers.

3D printing in particular has a great potential for enabling human travel to Mars, as it would majorly reduce cargo and costs (it currently requires $10,000 to get each payload into orbit). It may also have a huge impact on rocket design: this April NASA revealed a 3D-printed copper rocket engine component, and back in November the International Space Station created its first 3D-printed part.

A 3D printed copper engine part created by NASA engineers (courtesy NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given)

A 3D-printed copper engine part created by NASA engineers (courtesy NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given)

Registration started last week for the first phase of the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, focused on architectural concepts. Other phases will concentrate on fabrication technologies for both recyclables from space travel and “indigenous” Mars materials, as well as creating an actual full-scale model here on Earth, likely at one of our planetary analogues that simulates Martian conditions. The top 30 designs from the first phase will go on to be judged at the Maker Faire in New York this September 26–27. There, in the presence of early rockets like the Gemini Titan II and the Mercury-Atlas D at the New York Hall of Science, crowdsourced innovation may influence the next stage of space exploration.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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