An environment on the moon or Mars is vastly different from our own planet’s, so when it comes to visualizing what it might be like to build a sustainable human habitat on one of these distant destinations, more than rocket science is needed.

“Habitat for exploration parties is going to be needed, whether it is for the moon or for Mars,” said Tony Kim, deputy program manager of the NASA Centennial Challenges Program “NASA’s expertise is building rockets, so to bring in expertise from other fields like construction, we decided to sponsor active competitions where companies and individuals with construction expertise can assist us by using BIM to visualize new habitat models that could work on Mars or the moon and that could sustain human life.”

For the project, NASA set up basic guidelines, like defining the number of crew members who would need to live in a structure constructed for Mars or the moon. “We want participants to take these parameters and construct 3D models that can work with technologies like 3D printing and manufacturing for purposes of construction,” said Kim.

BIM is a toolset that is well suited to NASA’s habitat visualization program

One of the challenges is working with materials that are indigenous to other planetary environments, since NASA wants to avoid shipping large payloads of building supplies to distant planets.

“We want to 3D-print building components that use traditional materials like concrete, but then fabricate the components out of materials that can be found locally in an environment like Mars so we can do all of the construction there,” said Kim.

BIM is a toolset that is well suited to NASA’s habitat visualization program because it not only facilitates the design of habitats, it can add extra layers of detail such as the types of materials that could be used in various aspects of habitat design, as well as the process for how various structures might be built.

“We are after a ‘no miss’ structure that will be able to be effectively and efficiently constructed on a distant surface like that of Mars, that complies with the local planetary environment as well as with human habitat needs, and that enables us to visualize every aspect of a proposed habitat model and how that habitat might work,” said Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA Centennial Challenges.

For NASA, BIM Is a Breakthrough.

“We haven't really used BIM before, so we’re looking forward to the models and ideas that companies and individuals come up with in the challenges contest by using this toolset,” said Kim. “We use a formal project life cycle methodology here at NASA to manage projects from concept through critical design reviews, builds and implementation and we can apply that, but the ideas we are looking for are really going to come from other fields such as construction, so this is a new area for us and we want the know-how of industry specialists in construction and other related building disciplines.”

Both Roman and Kim emphasized that the Centennial Challenges competition was “open,” and that companies and individuals in construction, concrete and other related areas that before had never thought about doing business with NASA shouldn't prelude it.

”The program is open to anyone who wants to participate,” said Roman, “This is a continuous educational effort for us now in our outreach effort, because on first impression, a concrete or a construction company or expert isn't likely to think of NASA as a likely consumer of its services—but we could be. What we want is lightweight materials for the construction of habitat for humans on remote planetary destinations. These habitat building materials don’t have to be materials that we use or are familiar with here on Earth. We also aren't necessarily insisting that buildings have to be constructed in traditional ways, like as rectangles or squares. What we are doing is opening the door for science and ingenuity, and we are encouraging participation from companies and people with skills and ideas in other fields than the traditional rocket science that NASA has been engaged in doesn’t touch.”

Centennial Challenges Run In Phases.

Phase 1, which began in 2015, featured a design competition that generated many interesting ideas for space habitat construction.

The Phase 2 competition took place in 2017. In phase 2, participants began with 3D printing for the manufacturing of building components that could use recycled materials for the production of cylinders, beams and other habitat-building components.

Phase 3, scheduled for 2018, moves to the next level – into more advanced design builds using BIM and implementation constructs. Phase 3 is now open for registration.;

“We want to encourage industry to develop and work with us in a hand-in-hand partnership,” said Roman. “It is private industry that will decide what the habitat modeling platform will be. Our desire is for industry to develop and to incubate this technology and for NASA to procure it. We are not trying to dictate the methodology or the forms of habitat designs for other planets, only to encourage others in industry who have skills and ingenuity in areas like construction, concrete, materials and other facets of habitat development to lend their everyday experiences to the tasks at hand and to join with us as we look at some of the practicalities that will have to be addressed in interplanetary exploration.”