NASA wants to land astronauts on Mars by 2033 and eventually establish a permanent research base on the red planet. One key step? Figuring out how to create a habitable environment. Now, the space agency is one step closer to achieving that goal.
Last week, NASA awarded the New York-based design studio SEArch+ and robotics company Apis Cor top prize in phase three of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge for their conceptual tower. Made from Martian regolith—the dust, rock, and soil layered on the planet’s surface—and featuring living quarters and research labs inside, the design looks more like the slick sets of Star Trek or High Life than the mechanical interiors of the International Space Station—and this might be the future home for astronauts on Mars.
“We took an unconventional approach to systems engineering and what it means to design for people,” says designer and technologist Melodie Yashar, the co-founder of SEArch+ (which stands for “Space Exploration Architecture”). “We don’t come from a perspective of trying to create aesthetic and amusing spaces. It’s an evidence-based process.”
For thousands of years, humans have built shelters using earth, mixing together naturally available mud, soil, sand, rock, clay, and water. Since then, buildings have become more sophisticated, with a number of highly engineered materials, complex structural compositions, and new building techniques. You might expect the architecture of our far-flung future to require even more technology and never-before-seen techniques, but it turns out, it’s a lot like our past.
The challenges of building in space are twofold. First, the payload of ships from earth is fairly small (it’s infeasible to bring steel, glass, and concrete to Mars). Meanwhile, the atmospheric and climatic conditions require incredibly strong structures. Scientists are envisioning an interior environment that lets humans walk around and breathe just like they would on earth and this pressurized environment is far greater than Mars’s natural environment, which exerts strong outward pressure on the structure containing it.
To solve for the first challenge, Yashar and her team envisioned bringing architectural-scale 3D printers and polyethylene resin from earth and using the regolith to create the structure. It’s shaped like a hyperboloid to direct forces downward. Just like concrete is reinforced with steel, the regolith is reinforced by a web-like basalt structure sandwiched between regolith layers. Because the regolith contains toxic perchlorates, an air-tight polyethylene wall separates the habitable space from the shell.
The rooms inside look like well-appointed cabins in a ship, complete with built-in furniture, plants, and other domestic touches.
“We’re trying to celebrate a human emphasis and celebrate what it means to design for people’s full needs,” Yashar says. “That means light, separation of public and private spaces, and access to greenery and nature. These aren’t always prioritized from a systems engineering perspective. Our underlying goal is to project a future where people are thriving on a planet and not just surviving with the bare minimum of what they need.”
Time and again, designing for outer space has produced a number of speculative designs, from the neofuturistic illustrations of Syd Mead to simulated environments on Earth by BIG. While Yashar’s design is still a concept, it’s backed by prototype engineering and rooted in research; she hesitates to label it as just another dreamy thought exercise.
“It’s an innate part of the human spirit to want to explore and venture into unknown territories,” Yashar says. “[Design for space] is something that has been able to capture the imagination of the general public, but also people who are thinking aspirationally about what it means to develop technology for long-term interplanetary exploration...The aerospace industry is slowly and surely appreciating the perspective of designing from a human emphasis and breaking from the general expectations about what it means to design a habitat in space.”