The concept of a permanent lunar base has been thrown around by various men in various nice suits since the Cold War, but it’s never passed beyond talk – principally due to the phenomenal costs of establishing such a facility. Pretty much the entire thing would have to be prefabricated on the Earth and rocketed up into space, before landing on the Moon and being assembled either automatically or by astronauts there. In either case, the showstopper is getting the prefabricated structure to the Moon. Breaking out of Earth’s gravity is no small feat; it takes an incredible amount of rocket fuel to generate enough thrust to get just one pound of cargo or personnel into orbit – the prices can easily be in the neighborhood of $10000 per pound.
Who is involved?
The European Space Agency has recently unveiled its plan to circumvent that problem, though: 3D printing the entire base from local materials. Local construction has been mentioned in the past, but sourcing, excavating, and processing resources – all on the lunar surface – made it only a thought exercise; solving one problem by introducing a bigger one. This is where the ESA’s proposed solution shines. In collaboration with the architectural minds of Foster + Partners, they’re now investigating the possibility of using the principles of 3D printing to provide a cost-effective way to erect structures on the Moon.
Obviously, the implementation isn’t exactly the same; plastic is incredibly easy to work with, and has been a real boon to consumer 3D printing. The Moon is, needless to say, not made of plastic. However, UK firm Monolite’s D-Shape printer demonstrates the applicability of 3D printing to other media; in this case, it uses magnesium oxide to bind loose, sand-like materials – such as lunar dust – and layers the resultant compound to form complex 3D shapes, much like any other 3D printer. The difference is scale; the D-Shape produces much more resilient, concrete-like structures at a scale which is useful for architecture. All that needs to be sent into space is the printer and a small supply of binders; the vast majority of the building materials will be lunar dust, which blankets the surface and doesn’t require any real effort to harvest.
The current D-Shape printer is already capable of printing off a 1.5-tonne building block using simulated lunar materials, and can print at two meters per hour. Monolite expects their future printers to be capable of printing 3.5 meters per hour – and to finish buildings in a week’s time.
The 3D printer lunar base is a very real possibility – and it’s huge. A functioning lunar base would be a foothold for the further colonization of the Moon – and, eventually, for space colonization at large. Many of the most immediate problems this plan would face, such as the issue of the magnesium oxide boiling off of the surface in a vacuum, have been solved – in that case, it’s injected into the dust layer and held there by capillary action. It’d be hasty to say that this was a certain thing, but it is the best bet in a long time, and it means huge things for humanity as a whole.
What does this mean for 3D printing?
And for 3D printing? This base would mark the birth of 3D printing as a serious method of building construction; being quick, cheap, and dependent mostly on local materials could lead to a revolution in construction. A home, constructed from the earth itself in no more than a week’s time, with one automated tool that could be managed by a single individual.