NASA Funds Contour Crafting’s Material Transport Tech for Lunar Construction

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We recently reported that NASA was funding more than 20 3D printing-related proposals as part of its 2022 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program. One of these projects is heralded by University of Southern California (USC) spinoff and disruptive construction technology startup Contour Crafting. Through the agency’s STTR contract, the company wants to adapt its novel material conveyance system to transport construction materials, like regolith and rock, on the lunar surface.

Described as a special version of Contour Crafting’s CrafTram technology, this new system is expected to autonomously move lunar regolith using a fraction of the energy required by alternatives such as conventional loaders or trucks, which would otherwise have to make return trips empty. Instead, CrafTram would eliminate the need for such back and forth transport of a vehicle. Once on-site, the platform could operate smoothly with minimum wear, regardless of sandy or rocky terrains, and transport material to and from different elevations, including sharp uphill or downhill trajectories.

For the CrafTram, Contour Crafting will work with its partners at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering (VSOE) to demonstrate how this automated technology for lunar surface site preparation could help NASA with its regolith work activities, including building launch and landing zones; hardened landing pads; pathways for improved trafficability, and radiation shielding structures.

Material for Moon Bases

Although there is only so much we understand about the possibilities of 3D printing on the Moon and other planets, experts know that building structures off-Earth will be very different from any of the traditional constructions we’ve grown up with. For several years regolith has been regarded as the potential primary building material for printed structures on the Moon and Mars, mainly due to its abundance. There are already several proposals to excavate and harvest lunar regolith for construction, so creating the technology to transport this material seems to be the next fundamental step in the race to colonize the Moon.

Conventional solutions such as earth-moving equipment consume large amounts of energy and have to travel one way with empty loads. Moreover, their bulk makes transporting the machinery to the lunar surface very expensive. That is why the special CrafTram proposed by Contour Crafting holds many possibilities. Primarily, it is a super lightweight concept, which folds into a small spatial envelope for easy transportation to the lunar surface. Once there, it could self-transform to its deployed form for autonomous operation at planetary construction sites.

Additive construction technology by Contour Crafting. The sophisticated extrusion technology being used by Contour Crafting. Image courtesy of Contour Crafting.

But embarking on a mission to develop technology for colonizing Earth’s moon and beyond is no easy task. Contour Crafting will design the CrafTram system for this new project and create a TRL (Technology Readiness Level) 4 functioning 1/3 scale prototype. The proposed effort at the research level also includes the analysis and design of a demonstration structure called a berm, which protects the environment around the landing pads from blast projectiles produced by spaceships taking off or landing.

According to the proposal, the analysis and design of the berm will be done by USC VSOE’s professor Lucio Soibelman’s Structures and Materials Research Lab (SMRL). Towards the end of Phase I, both Contour Crafting and SMRL will demonstrate a scaled-down version of the CrafTram concept in action, transporting material and constructing a ⅓ scale lunar berm structure out of a regolith simulant material.

The goals of this collaborative effort are directly aligned with NASA’s Artemis mission which aims to establish the first lunar base and a lunar economy in the following decades. However, outside of this application, the CrafTram technology could serve as a general-purpose material conveyance system that will be made available for other missions to the Moon, and in the future, to Mars.

A History of Additive Construction

Founded by USC VSOE professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, Contour Crafting marked the beginning of construction 3D printing more than two decades ago. Piggybacking on Khoshnevis’s pioneering construction scale 3D printing ideas, the startup became known for developing large-scale 3D printing technology, including the flagship CrafTrans, a transformable and rapidly deployable construction 3D printer.

Khoshnevis, a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Fellow, has been developing technologies for planetary construction since 2004 under the agency’s support. His accomplishments in these research and development efforts won him two grand prizes in 2014 and 2016 in international NASA-sponsored competitions. One of these recognitions went to a technology that can build structures on the Moon and Mars out of local planetary materials, using a system designed for autonomous construction of landing pads and roads and fabrication of interlocking bricks and other objects such as metallic tools and spare parts.

In fact, Contour Crafting’s latest project proposal to receive NASA funding is probably leveraging much of this past award-winning technology and in-situ resource utilization. If successful, the CrafTram could move onto Phase II funding to develop a scale prototype as well as other subsequent SBIR/STTR post-Phase II opportunities.

As part of NASA’s 2022 SBIR and STTR winning proposals, Contour Crafting is not the only company that submitted technology for lunar construction. Other selected projects include a BrickLayer system for building lunar launch and landing pads developed by Astroport and the University of Texas at San Antonio and Cislune’s proposed set of technologies to extract and process regolith for building structures. In the next decade, we expect several of these technologies to mature so they can operate in off-Earth conditions, especially once Artemis missions to lunar posts begin.

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