NASA Offers Prize Money for Winning 3D-Printed Habitat Ideas

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA is offering $1.1 million in prize money in Phase 2 of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge for new ways to build houses where future space explorers can live and work. The three-part competition asks citizen inventors to use readily available and recyclable materials for the raw material to print habitats.

Phase 2 focuses on the material technologies needed to manufacture structural components from a combination of indigenous materials and recyclables, or indigenous materials alone. NASA may use these technologies to construct shelters for future human explorers to Mars. On Earth, these same capabilities could also be used to produce affordable housing wherever it is needed or where access to conventional building materials and skills is limited.

“Shelter is an obvious necessity as we prepare to explore worlds beyond our home planet, but space and weight aboard our vehicles are precious, and taken by the many other resources we will need for survival,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “That’s why we are seeking the technology to reuse the materials we will already be carrying, and combine them with what is already available at our destination, which is, in this case, soil. We recycle here on Earth – why not on Mars?”

NASA has partnered with Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois, and sponsors Caterpillar, also in Peoria, Bechtel, and Brick & Mortar Ventures, both in San Francisco, for Phase 2 of the competition.

“Innovation, collaboration and experiential learning, three of Bradley University’s core values, are at the heart of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge with NASA and Caterpillar,” said Bradley University President Gary Roberts. “The challenge provides an unparalleled opportunity for students and faculty to network, create relationships with mentors and explore new ideas as they partner in creating solutions for our world and beyond.”

Registration for Phase 2 is now open; teams have until Jan. 31, 2017 to sign up. The challenge will culminate in a ground competition in August 2017 at the Caterpillar proving ground facilities in Peoria. Phase 3 will focus on fabrication of complete habitats. Phase 1 of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, a design competition, was completed in 2015.

NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program uses competitions to draw citizen inventors from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to push technology forward for the benefit of space exploration. Centennial Challenges is part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

For more information about the competition, visit:

To register, and for the official rules and documents, visit:

  • JamesG
  • Aerospike

    You win! Competition is officially over! 😉

  • Kenneth_Brown

    3D print a habitat? My view on sending a load of 3D printers to Mars and having any colony depend on them to create necessary infrastructure is a recipe for a bunch of dead colonists.

    The first issue is whether habitats on the surface of Mars are a good idea. Lacking a magnetic field and very little atmosphere, radiation is an issue. It will be better for humans on Mars to live underground for the most part and limit exposure time on the surface.

    3D printers may seem simple, but they have a long supply chain that isn’t available on Mars. Most of them use a hydrocarbon derived material (plastics, epoxies, etc) to build parts. They are controlled by a box of electronics that could fail a long way from the closest point UPS will deliver a package of spare parts. The precision mechanics will not last long if fines and dust get into the works. Lubricants are going to pick up foreign materials rapidly.

    Initially, there will need to be a large stash of tools and erector set like parts prepositioned at a selected site before humans make the trip. Instead of partnering with Cat, maybe they should get Ikea onboard to come up with flat pack habitats that can be erected with two screw drivers and a hammer. Cat could some up with some Mars moving equipment based on Titanium and Magnesium so it can be rocketed to the red planet for use in excavating depressions to build the habitats in and then covering them for shielding.

    The unmanned rockets can be designed to be used on the surface of Mars as work sheds and as a source of raw materials. Even a crashed lump of cruise stage rocket will provide a good source of metals.

    Thinking low-tech is the way to go. A forge, some tongs and a way to heat a crucible will yield some basic bulk metals. Those metals can be used to create an incrementally better plant and tools and so on. As the infrastructure improves, so does the ability to support the items that are made with that infrastructure. Since the processes and theory is already known, it will be much easier to add sophistication in a short period of time.

    British television had some great mini series hosted by Richard Hammond (ex Top Gear) that explored the knowledge chain behind modern products. As an engineer, those shows made me think about how to support different things away from Earth. It’s just like what Amazon ran into when they researched how they could build Kindle eBook readers in the USA. They couldn’t since US companies lacked the technology and equipment to produce the e-Ink displays even though they were invented in the US. They had to be made in China. The parallel is that most modern manufactured electronic items will not be able to be made on Mars until the capability is installed there. And, it’s not just a semiconductor fab that they will need. They will also need a way to make printed circuit boards, wind capacitors, purify copper and draw wire for inductors, extract and process carbon for resistors, create insulation for wires and thousands of other related inputs. It can all be shipped up, but it can’t be duplicated or easily repaired.

    3D printers can be very useful but they are not the same as replicators described in sci-fi books. Even SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) processes require a supply chain to source the powdered metal that is used. Before the powder can be made, the metal has to be purified. Before the metal can be purified/alloyed, it has to be mined. Before it can be mined………

  • Aerospike

    While you raise some valid points, I think you are thinking _way_ to much about FDM, SLA/DLP and SLS technology when you read “3D Printer” and not enough about the broader, general meaning of the term.

    JamesGs comment/picture is possibly closer to the reality of both the problem and the solution than any consumer grade 3D printer available. No matter if you go to the Moon or to Mars, there is practically an infinite amount of “dirt” available. It has different properties than dirt on Earth, it even has a different name. But it is still “dirt” as in “fine grained material”. Take a shovel and you can “3d print” simple “structures”. Add in some “support elements” like tubes and domes etc. and cover them with dirt and suddenly you can make useful things.

    Now make a bigger technological step and add both chemical and physical treatment of the dirt: mixing with water or other chemicals and stuff like heat treatment. And suddenly your “3d printing” capabilities could be at the level of pouring concrete or at least things like early clay buildings! (And would actually not be that different from things like FDM printers!)

    I think that is the point of this challenge: come up with ways to process the available soil to make “reinforced” structures out of them.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    When I read discussions about “3D Printing”, I think of an electromechanical device that autonomously creates an item by an additive process. I wouldn’t consider using a shovel or pouring concrete 3D printing.

    ISRU is an absolute necessity. It’s already known that there are a significant amounts of peroxides along with metal oxides, but not a complete analysis. It would be bad to expect to use a certain process and send the machinery up only to find that a chemical, element or compound renders the process unviable.

    What I was trying to get across was that it’s more appropriate to send a package of simple tools that can be used to create a wide array of more advanced tools. Anything that can’t be repaired on site with what is at hand shouldn’t be relied on for survival.