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NASA’s Centennial Challenges awards $400K in 3D-printed habitat challenge

NASA 3D-printed Habitat Challenge 2017

NASA 3D-printed Habitat Challenge logo 2017. Image Credit: NASA

NASA has recently awarded two teams a combined $400,000 for their winning entries in an agency Centennial Challenges designed to test the feasibility of systems that build 3D-printed human habitats on other worlds using local materials. This was the second of a three-part Challenge to advance the ability to “live off the land” on the Moon or Mars.

Contents under pressure

The competition’s first prize of $250,000 went to Team Foster + Partners | Branch Technology of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the second prize of $150,000 went to Pennsylvania State University of University Park.

LEFT: The Foster + Partners | Branch Technology team from Chattanooga, Tennessee, with their 3D-printed dome structure after it was strength tested on Aug. 26, 2017, at Caterpillar Inc.’s Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Illinois. The team won first place and $250,000 at Phase 2: Level 3 of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. RIGHT: Members of the Penn State Den@Mars team, from University Park, Pa., with their completed 3D-printed dome structure on Aug. 25, 2017, at the Caterpillar, Inc., Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Illinois. The team won second place and $150,000 in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, Phase 2: Level 3 competition. Photos & Captions Credit: Joel Kowsky / NASA

Phase 1 of the competition took place on Sept. 27, 2015, at the 2015 World Maker Faire in New York. This initial $50,000 design competition required participants to develop state-of-the-art architectural concepts using three-dimensional 3-D printing.

In the just-completed Phase 2, participants create recycling systems capable of building structural components using terrestrial and space-based materials and recyclables (e.g., plastics). Teams developed 3-D printing technologies capable of producing a structurally sound habitat, including the printer itself and the construction materials. The competitors then printed beams, cylinders, and domes, which were analyzed and compressed to failure. Judges scored and awarded the participants based on how well their structures survived these tests.

Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, served as NASA’s primary partner for the competition. Other partners included CaterpillarBechtel, and Brick & Mortar Ventures, which helped run the competition. The Challenge occurred, appropriately enough, at the earth-moving company Caterpillar’s Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center in Edwards, Illinois, August 23–26.

It’s not just about space

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) runs the Centennial Challenges Program, which is managed out of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

For STMD, the 3-D Printing Challenge isn’t just about using robots to construct habitats on the Moon or Mars out of local materials or polyurethane (though that’s pretty cool in itself). The Challenge is in keeping with STMD’s mandate to advance and cross-pollinate NASA’s capabilities while also making them relevant to other customers. The Challenge’s overview asserts that “these same habitat construction capabilities could be used to produce housing wherever affordable housing is needed and access to conventional building materials and skills are limited.”

Jim Reuter, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for STMD, presented the prizes to the winning teams. At the event, Reuter said: “The advancement and innovation in additive construction that we’ve seen from these teams is inspiring. Meeting the technology goals of this challenge proves that competition can push boundaries, and their work puts us that much closer to preparing the way for deep space exploration.”

Phase 3 of the 3-D Printing Challenge will have participants fabricate a scale model of a habitat using 3-D printing with indigenous materials that might or might not include recyclables.



Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.

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