Humans are a mere decade or so from becoming a multi-planetary society. The United States and other countries have plans for manned Martian missions in the next couple of decades, but private space companies like SpaceX and Mars One are likely to not only put humans on Mars sooner than that, but to also establish Martian colonies.
Mars One’s timetable plans for initial unmanned launches in 2018 to begin establishing a colony on Mars. The company will send its first group of colonists in 2024. Habitats, life support units and everything the colony needs will arrive before the colonists, and will be setup by robots. The company is working with several technology partners to execute its plan, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which will transport hardware and colonists to the red planet.
But Musk and SpaceX also have plans to build a city on Mars. And Musk intends to retire there.
Although the technology to realize Martian colonies either exists or is currently being developed, one of the largest roadblocks is the astronomical cost of space travel. Transporting structures and everything needed to sustain a human colony is an expensive task, which drives up the cost of such a project, making the possibility of joining a Martian colony available only to the super rich.
Musk is a bit like John Hammond in “Jurassic Park” though. He doesn’t want the option to live on Mars to be exclusive to extremely wealthy people. He explained in a 2012 interview on ABC’s “Nightline” that making the move to Mars affordable is crucial for colonization to occur.
“We know it’s possible to get there. The question is a much more difficult one, which is, ‘Can we make a trip to Mars affordable for the average person in the United States,’” he said. “You would be moving to Mars, so I think ‘affordable’ has to be no more than half a million dollars. I know it is possible.”
SpaceX is developing and perfecting reusable rockets, which will significantly help to reduce the cost of space travel. But the heavy weight of habitats and other structures for colonies will be expensive to transport no matter how you slice it.
Fortunately, there are technologies being developed to solve this problem. And one of the most exciting and promising technologies for building space colonies is contour crafting. This technology was developed by revamping a construction system pioneered more than 10 years ago by Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor and director of the University of Southern California’s manufacturing engineering graduate program.
Khoshnevis was awarded a $500,000 grant from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts division to develop automated building technology that will allow scientists to build structures on planets and moons. His contour crafting technology uses a 3D printer to build cement buildings at a relatively fast pace. An entire building can be constructed within 24 hours.
The best part about this technology is its resourcefulness. “Use the material that’s there and then use robotic systems that will take energy from the sun to operate instead,” he explains. That means that once the printer arrives on the Moon or Mars, it will use the available resources there to print structures. These structures aren’t flimsy either. Walls built by the contour crafting are reportedly more than three times as strong as a typical concrete wall.
If you’re wondering why this incredible technology isn’t being used here on Earth, it will be. According to the BBC, Khoshnevis says construction using contour crafting will likely be used first in “emerging markets, where there's a high demand for quick, cheap and safe housing, as well as emergency disaster accommodation.”
Contour crafting could provide an economically viable and reliable building system for construction in space. But Khoshnevis’s system is reportedly still decades away from being utilized to construct buildings on Mars.