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Austin 3D-printed homes startup prepares NASA for human Mars exploration

ICON's 3D printed technology will be used to make an interplanetary habitat. (ICON)

Austin-based ICON, developer behind the city's first 3D-printed homes, is taking its construction technologies to space once more with a 3D-printed habitat known as the Mars Dune Alpha.

In a press release, the company announced it was awarded a subcontract through Jacobs supporting NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate Friday to build the 1,700 square-foot structure. Made by the very same technology that brings the 3D houses to life, the habitat is meant to simulate a "realistic Mars habitat."

Mars Dune Alpha is being made with ICON's Vulcan construction system—the same it uses to 3D print houses. (ICON)

Designed by architecture firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, Mars Dune Alpha is part of NASA's The Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog study, which is a sequence of three one-year Mars surface mission simulations that will take place at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston starting in fall 2022.

While this structure is a simulation, it could be the future for building on Mars using additive construction technology, which is the entire process of building a structure from materials produced on-site, as sending building materials on multiple flights would be too costly.


CHAPEA will assess NASA's space food system, physical and behavioral health of participants and performance outcomes for future long-duration and exploration-class missions on Mars.

"This is the highest-fidelity simulated habitat ever constructed by humans," ICON co-founder and CEO Jason Ballard said. "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."

ICON's version of life on Mars will look somewhat like a sci-fi movie—the rectangular, utilitarian structure is designed with four private crew quarters adjacent to the facilities and crop growing areas on one end, work and medical stations on the other, divided by living quarters.

ICON says the structure will include a mixture of fixed and movable furniture, an arched ceiling to avoid spatial monotony, as well as customizable lighting, temperatures and sound control to promote a healthy circadian rhythm and suit the crew's daily needs.

A concept of the structure, which will remain on Earth... for now. (ICON)

This isn't the startup's first rodeo with NASA, in March it announced it was teaming up with the space agency and members of its Artemis Generation to create a 3-D-printed rocket landing pad made of materials found on the moon and the company is working with NASA on "Project Olympus," research on a space-based construction system to support future exploration of the moon.

NASA begins recruitment for the one-year Mars mission analog study today and will accept applications until mid-September.


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