Why Do We Have to Pretend We’re Going to 3D Print Homes on Mars?

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Maybe someday we’ll 3D print houses on Mars. But how much effort and time would it take to get there? And, is it even a good goal? Recently, at AI Summit London, part of London Tech Week 2024, the deputy director for technology and research investments at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Christyl Johnson, said this:

“In 2100, we will be having cities on other planetary bodies…We’ve got to really master things like producing oxygen, water and energy on a grand scale. We’re going to have to make sure that we are mastering the AI capabilities for that so we can do real-time data analysis and systems optimization for plant maintenance and predictive maintenance. We’ve got to get right here first on Earth, and then we’ll be able to take that to other planetary bodies.”

According to an article in AI Business, Johnson “…highlighted the potential of 3D printing to build habitats, with robots transporting the materials to fuel the printers continuously.”

Image courtesy of Ben Wodecki/AIBusiness

I’m sure Johnson believes this is a possibility, and again, perhaps it is. But even if there were a 100 percent chance of success, would it be a goal worth working towards?

I’m much more interested in part of that last sentence from Johnson’s statement quoted above: “We’ve got to get right here first on Earth…” The idea that we could/should make another planet livable by 2100 raises the obvious (and, I think, reasonable) question of how livable our own planet is going to be by that date.

Rendering of 3D printed lunar habitat. Image courtesy of ICON

In Killah Priest’s 1995 song “B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth)”, the rapper points out, “Why should you die to go to heaven? The Earth is already in space…” I think we should view the set of technological issues Johnson is talking about in similar fashion: why tailor our advanced industrial development towards living on Mars when we’ve got a more or less alien planet emerging right here under our feet?

In a post from about a year ago, I wrote, “…the data that is being gathered [about space] will be most significant insofar as it teaches us the best paths forward for success, at all the moonshots demanded by the task of adapting to our rapidly transforming planet.”

I’m far from the first person to make this kind of point: people have in fact been making it for over 50 years, usually as a way to argue for defunding NASA. We don’t even have to do that, though! NASA can simply change its mission.

Think about what Johnson said: “We’ve got to really master things like producing oxygen, water and energy on a grand scale.” That’s true — Earth needs all of those things, desperately. We should start getting comfortable with framing the problems that technological fields like additive manufacturing (AM) must solve primarily in those precise terms.

Maybe the space program isn’t just a “noble lie”: “a falsehood meant to be accepted for the sake of a stable, harmonious society.” (Certainly, our society hasn’t felt stable and harmonious for quite some time.) Perhaps we’re all truly collectively working toward the reality of hyper-advanced space cities.

But it’s preferable to me to think that all of the know-how gains from the space program will pay the most dividends here on Earth, and that filtering those problems through space research is sufficiently less scary and less controversial to enable the research to proceed as untampered-with as possible. It would still be interesting, however, to see what would happen if we simply faced our Earth challenges head-on.

Featured image courtesy of NASA

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