BIG Designs 3D-Printed Mars Base for ICON

Is this the solution to the problem of building on other planets?

Mars Dune Alpha
Mars Dune Alpha .


The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was pretty dire, and Treehugger writer Sami Grover tells us we can't rely on New Zealand, but there's always Mars! 3D printing company ICON is laying the groundwork for printing buildings on the moon and Mars by squeezing out Mars Dune Alpha, a 3D-printed habitat at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The 1,700-square-foot structure is designed by architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) to "simulate a realistic Mars habitat to support long-duration, exploration-class space missions."

The Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) is a series of one-year-long simulations of a trip to Mars, testing out food systems "as well as physical and behavioral health and performance outcomes for future space missions."

"NASA will use research from the Mars Dune Alpha simulations to inform risk and resource trades to support crew health and performance for future missions to Mars when astronauts would live and work on the Red planet for long periods of time."
ICON printer squozing out goop
ICON printer squozing out goop.


According to ICON, additive construction technology (the proper name for 3D printing) would eliminate the need for transporting building materials from Earth, which makes sense: Concrete is only about 10% cement, and one could use Martian sand for the rest, mix it up with some Martian water and squirt it out with automated printers.

Jason Ballard, CEO of ICON, is quoted in a press release:

“This is the highest-fidelity simulated habitat ever constructed by humans. Mars Dune Alpha is intended to serve a very specific purpose--to prepare humans to live on another planet. We wanted to develop the most faithful analog possible to aid in humanity's dream to expand into the stars. 3D printing the habitat has further illustrated to us that construction-scale 3D printing is an essential part of humanity's toolkit on Earth and to go to the Moon and Mars to stay."
Plan of Mars Base


Bjarke Ingels is known for his exuberant architecture, which is why I have often called him BJARKE! –everything about him has exclamation marks. Yet the plan of this building is low-key, almost banal. There are crew quarters at one end, workstations at the other, with shared stuff in between. The only Bjarkean feature appears to be the "varying ceiling heights vertically segmented by an arching shell structure accentuate the unique experience of each area to avoid spatial monotony and crewmember fatigue."

Bjarke says, "Together with NASA and ICON, we are investigating what humanity’s home on another planet will entail from the human experience.” He claims that the building, a windowless rectangular box with a plan that looks like a modern university dormitory with brown textured wallpaper, "will potentially lay the foundation for a new Martian vernacular."

Fred Scharmen, architect and author of "Space Settlements," was underwhelmed as well, telling Treehugger:

"It's really tough to see what's new or unique about this project. People have been using 3D printing to make domestic structures for years, and space agencies have been doing on research on this kind of long duration live/work scenario for decades. This looks like a simple mashup of those two existing programs, and the result isn't doing anything spatially or architecturally that addresses the novel challenges and opportunities that living in space offers."
ICON printer inside building


It's likely that this project had a program determined by NASA and Bjarke didn't have a lot of wiggle room. The ICON printer could have made the rooms any shape or form, and this building design could have been more easily and cheaply built out of steel studs and drywall. In fact, the wonderful printer and all that cement is pretty much wasted, building this inside another building.

Olympus base on moon
Project Olympus Base on Moon.


It's a shame, and a missed opportunity, given that when he "Bjarked" the moon for ICON with the Olympus Base, it was so much more interesting, demonstrating the potential of the technology. In this particular project, the 3D printer is once again, a solution looking for a problem.