Having previously designed Tim Cook-commandeered intergalactic spacecraft and totally sweet lunar digs, it would only make sense that the never-dull British architecture firm led by Pritzker Prize-winning octogenarian cycling enthusiast Sir Norman Foster has now dreamt up modular housing units for Mars — cozy little astronaut pied-à-terres, if you will.
It’s a shame that Foster + Partners’ Red Planet housing proposal, recently announced as a winner in the first stage of NASA's 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, wasn't conceived a wee bit later. Taking today’s huge development into consideration, the design team could have added an in-ground swimming pool into the project renderings. Or at the very least an illustration of this guy lurking around in a crater.
Regardless, the proposal finds Foster + Partners, a firm that's also unleashed spaceports, droneports and glass pickles, at its far-out finest. It’s also one that closely mirrors the firm’s 2013’s 3-D printed moon habitat concept in that it also harnesses regolith — the layers of sand, dust and fragmented bedrock that covers the surfaces of both Mars and the moon — as an indigenous building material.
Of course, regolith varies from heavenly body to heavenly body. Martian regolith is finer than lunar regolith but the actual building process, one that revolves around a 3-D printing process called Regolith Additive Construction, or RAC, is roughly the same. Just like an affordable — and very much terrestrial —3-D printed housing concept that I featured last week, this is large-scale 3-D printing that makes good use of locally abundant and free materials — even if said materials are located 140 million miles away.
As for astronaut-housing lab-modules themselves, at a little over 1,000-square-feet they’d be spacious enough to house four intergalactic travelers each, combining “spatial efficiency with human physiology and psychology, with overlapping private and communal spaces, finished with ‘soft’ materials and enhanced virtual environments, which help reduce the adverse effects of monotony, while creating positive living environment for the astronauts.”
Construction of the habitats would take place in two different stages before the astronauts in question even set foot on Mars, with a dedicated team of semi-autonomous robots parachuted (!) in to perform all the grunt work. To be clear, three different types of specialized robots would be involved in the extraterrestrial construction process.
The first to arrive would be robots referred to as “Diggers.” The sole function of these large bots is to identify the location for a settlement and excavate the site, forming a crater that will eventually house a colony of inflatable housing modules. Eventually, the dome-shaped units would be encased with layers of regolith, forming a sort of protective shell over the structures.
Given the vast distance from the Earth and the ensuing communication delays, the deployment and construction is designed to take place with minimal human input, relying on rules and objectives rather than closely defined instructions. This makes the system more adaptive to change and unexpected challenges — a strong possibility for a mission of this scale.
I’ll let Foster + Partners explain the next steps of the process:
The larger ‘Diggers’ create the crater by excavating the regolith, which the medium-sized ‘Transporters’ then move into position over the inflatable habitat modules layer by layer. The loose Martian soil is then fused using microwaves around the modules using the same principles involved in 3D-printing by several small ‘Melters’. The fused regolith creates a permanent shield that protects the settlement from excessive radiation and extreme outside temperatures. The separation of tasks amongst the large number of robots, and the modularity of the habitat means a high level of redundancy is incorporated within the system — if one robot fails, or a single module is damaged, there are others that can fulfill its task, increasing the chances of a successful mission.
Foster + Partners proposal, entered under the name “Team Gamma,” scored second place in the 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, a $2.25 million competition — “Solving the need for safe, secure and sustainable housing on earth and beyond” — launched as part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program. Along with NASA, the competition was co-organized by America Makes, an organization otherwise known as the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute.
The top three designs, culled from 30 shortlisted entries, were announced this past weekend at the World Maker Faire in Queens, New York. In total, more than 165 Martian habitat design proposals were submitted to the competition.
The first place design, which walked away with a prize of $25,000, really couldn’t be any more timely. Titled ICE HOUSE, it was submitted by Team SEArch/Clouds Architecture Office:
ICE HOUSE is born from the imperative to bring light and a connection to the outdoors into the vocabulary of Martian architecture — to create protected space in which the mind and body will not just survive, but thrive. With water as the core resource for future outposts on extraterrestrial bodies, NASA has taken a “follow the water” approach to exploration; ICE HOUSE extends that concept to construction.
While this is all very exciting and imaginative, South Dakota, at least for the near future, offers slightly more viable housing options than the surface of Mars.