No Joke: These Guys Created A Machine For Printing Houses On The Moon

We find it difficult not to be deliriously excited about this. Paging Newt!

There is very little that’s easy about moon colonization. One of the bigger problems is setting up our hypothetical future colonists with living quarters. The issue is that it is very expensive to lift things off the ground and throw them into space. The more material you need to send up there, the more prohibitively expensive your problem is. As we’ve noted before this is why robots are surpassing humans in space exploration. But say you absolutely must build a moon colony (maybe you are President-Elect Gingrich). How do you do it?

First, you solve the material transport problem by making the moon base out of the moon itself. Second, you mitigate the "humans are expensive" problem by keeping them on the ground until the last minute—you use robots to build the base. Recently, USC Professors Behrokh Khoshnevis (Engineering), Anders Carlson (Architecture), Neil Leach (Architecture), and Madhu Thangavelu (Astronautics) completed their first research visualization for a system to do exactly that.

Using a technique called contour crafting, they propose sending robots to seed the surface of the moon with the basic infrastructure for a moon base (landing pads, roads, hangars, etc.). Once the construction is completed, human crew could lift off and move into their new home.

Contour crafting is effectively a form of 3-D printing. A robot arm extrudes concrete while automated trowels smooth the material into place. On earth, the promise it gives is low-cost, individually customized house construction—the same promises that 3-D printers give to object creation, but on an architectural scale.

On the moon, the basic idea is enhanced fully mobile crafting bots and by on-site quarrying and processing—as it turns out, moon rock has almost all the basic ingredients for concrete. "We will melt the lunar sand and rocks and extrude, the same way some rocks are made naturally on earth from volcanic lava," says Dr. Khoshnevis.

I’m completely fascinated with the way USC presents contour crafting. On the one hand, many of the demo videos show the system building very conservative houses. On the other hand, the live physical demos show ceramics with very curvy forms. The technique is presented at times as a solution to a housing crisis for the poor and at other times as the solution to housing in space. I can’t wait until it is unleashed on amateur and professional architects alike.

BldgBlog’s Geoff Manaugh often jokes that the theme for his site is "but what if we had 1,000 of them and put them on the moon?!" One of his earliest posts imagined contour crafting robots gone amok, building an infinite labyrinth that became visible from space. Imagine instead a child with a telescope, sneaking out at night to watch flocks of robots, building her a new neighborhood on the moon.

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  • Jimh

    What about meteors and meteorites hitting these buildings at thousands of MPH? They'd be blown to smithereens and so would their occupants!

  • Ionnuketorm

    simply build on the side of the moon facing earth. most meteorites don't come from the direction of the earth. still im sure most building wouldn't withstand a hit from a sufficiently large meteor

  • PeterG

    There is a simple drawback: Where to take the energy from? Melting sand and rocks needs lots of energy...

  • mcat

     Solar power is an almost limitless source of power on the Moon.  There is also the possibility of Nuclear power on the moon without much concern for radioactive waste since the sun irradiates the surface of the moon already.

  • Alientrilogy333

    Interesting, so they plan to enforce the cement with fiberglass. To add a more pressurized house. 

  • Jared McGuire

    This is indeed very cool. Concrete is porous though. I wonder how a concrete structure would hold up as a pressurized compartment. Would it maintain the airlock well? Most people who have basements can attest to its lack of sealing qualities. I am very interested in learning more about this.

  • Peter

    If their product is porous enough that it allows a slow continuous leaking of air could they not solve this by making an internal skin. Either some type of paint-on plastic or latex; or possibly by using something similar to a weather baloon inflated inside the building which would fit to the inside contours as it expands?