In a conceptual rendering, astronauts watch robots 3D-print structures out of processed lunar dirt.

By Rob Pegoraro

NASA awards Icon a $57.2 million contract to develop a system to build structures on the Moon out of mined lunar dirt.

NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the Moon include giving them someplace roomier to stay than their own spacecraft. So the space agency is paying a company that 3D prints home structures on Earth to develop the same technology for lunar use. 

Under a $57.2 million contract announced Tuesday under NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, Austin-based Icon Technology, Inc., will continue previous collaborations with NASA to develop its Project Olympus additive-construction concept into a system to build structures on the moon.

The raw material for the first such structure is already on the Moon: the surface layer of soil, or regolith to geologists. NASA’s plans for long-term exploration of the Moon and, eventually, Mars rely heavily on generating needed materials and supplies from what’s on the ground there—what it calls “In situ resource utilization”—instead of shipping everything from Earth. 

In Icon’s idea, robots will mine regolith for processing by Olympus machines into a material that can then be extruded to create structures that you might think of as exceptionally sci-fi sand castles. 

Icon has been using the same basic concept, but with trucked-in supplies, to 3D-print parts of houses around Austin. The company is also 3D-printing a simulated Mars habitat, called Mars Dune Alpha(Opens in a new window), at NASA’s Johnson Space Center outside Houston. 

NASA, for its part, has already spent years exploring possible uses for 3D printers inside spacecraft, having flown the first 3D printer(Opens in a new window) to the International Space Station in 2014 to test its ability to manufacture parts and tools as needed. Last year, it launched hardware to the ISS to test 3D printing using simulated regolith.