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.