ICON Wins NASA Contract for Lunar 3D Printing

Within a decade, a startup known for building cheap 3D-printed houses on Earth is hoping to bring the materials cost for building structures on the lunar surface down to zero. Austin-based ICON said this morning that it won a $57.2M Phase III SBIR award from NASA that will bring its 3D printing technology all the way to the Moon.

From Earth…Jason Ballard, cofounder and CEO of ICON, started the company in 2017 with the goal of solving the global housing crisis.

“If we’re going to be the advanced civilization we say we are and think we are, we ought to be better at sheltering ourselves,” Ballard told Payload. “We must have ways of sheltering ourselves that don’t ruin this planet in the first place.”

ICON’s first act was to construct neighborhoods of 3D-printed homes across several US states and Mexico. ICON builds its homes with a proprietary material somewhere between a mortar and a concrete, and they’re printed in place using ICON’s machines. 

…to the Moon: The idea that ICON’s technology could someday work in space has been around since the beginning, Ballard said. A month after building the world’s first permanent 3D house, ICON entered a NASA contest to design a 3D-printed habitat for Mars. The two have been collaborating ever since.

The two vastly different projects complement one another to advance 3D constructions technology both below the Karman line and beyond Earth, Ballard said: “If you get better at building houses in difficult, harsh, remote environments like the Moon, you probably are also going to be better at it on Earth. And getting better housing on Earth is also a profound opportunity and problem to solve.”

The Phase III award

Under this contract, ICON will take its 3D printing technology all the way to a demonstration on the lunar surface in 2026 (assuming the Artemis mission timeline stays on track).

This demonstration will use actual lunar regolith (the rocks and dust that make up the surface of the Moon) to build a structure meeting NASA’s strength requirements. This is an important step for ensuring that humanity can sustain a long-term lunar presence, Ballard said.

“If you tried to plan a lunar settlement or a moon base and you had to bring everything with you, every time you wanted to build a new thing it’s like another $100M,” Ballard said. “But once you’ve got a system that can build almost anything—landing pads, roadways, habitats—and it uses local material, you are probably two or three orders of magnitude cheaper to build a permanent lunar presence than you would be in any other way that we can think of.”

How it works: The difference between the terrestrial and space versions of ICON’s 3D printing technology starts with the materials used to build, Ballard said. At home, ICON builds its structures from a water-based material, but water sublimates on the Moon. It would also be expensive to bring additives to mix in with lunar regolith to make it easier to build with.

Instead, ICON says it can build structures using only the regolith by:

  1. Fine-tuning the printer’s laser based on the chemical makeup of the specific sample of regolith being used
  2. Laying down a layer of regolith
  3. Using the laser to melt the regolith into a ceramic structure
  4. Laying down another layer of regolith on top
  5. Rinsing and repeating

The company has tested this approach using simulated regolith in vacuum demonstrations on Earth. 

What’s next? The composition of the lunar regolith can vary greatly depending on where the mission lands, so the next few years will involve rigorous testing to ensure 3D printers can work with whatever materials we find on the lunar surface. The NASA award will also support the construction of a flight-ready printer system and fund ICON’s first construction project on the lunar surface.

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