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Construction tech startup partners with NASA on otherworldly 3D-printed homes that can sustain natural disasters — and possibly even space

"That is going to be a pretty special achievement."

"That is going to be a pretty special achievement."

Photo Credit: ICON

Journalist Lesley Stahl's introduction to her recent "60 Minutes" story about 3D printers sums up the initial promise of the unique technology

"There was a time when futurists were predicting that the advent of 3D printing was going to change our lives — that each of our houses would have a 3D printer to make whatever items we need," she said in a video clip

While that isn't yet the reality, the tech has taken perhaps an even more interesting path. 3D printers are actually building homes around the country.

What's more, Texas-based ICON has earned a nearly $60 million contract from NASA for its Project Olympus, to develop space-based 3D construction processes for an eventual trip to the Moon — and farther. The project builds upon other space-based research ICON has completed, per a company press release. 

"To change the space exploration paradigm from 'there and back again' to 'there to stay,' we're going to need robust, resilient, and broadly capable systems that can use the local resources of the Moon and other planetary bodies," ICON CEO Jason Ballard said in the statement.

ICON has already made a name for itself in 3D printing. The company is working on a project in its home state that will be the world's largest 3D community. There are 46-foot-wide printers deployed on-site to create the 100 homes, which have solar panels to maximize sustainability, as CNN reported.

The tech is touted as creating less air pollution than traditional building methods, with a host of other benefits, including withstanding 200-mile-an-hour winds and being fire-resistant and termite-proof, according to 60 Minutes. 

"That's why this feels like lightning in a bottle," Ballard told 60 Minutes.

As part of the NASA job order, ICON's team will be working in support of the agency's Artemis program, aimed at putting the first woman and person of color on the Moon for new types of exploration, according to NASA. 

"In order to explore other worlds, we need innovative new technologies adapted to those environments and our exploration needs," Niki Werkheiser, from NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said in the ICON press release. "Pushing this development forward with our commercial partners will create the capabilities we need for future missions."

ICON's advanced hardware and software will be leveraged. The team will have access to lunar rock samples from Apollo missions to study their properties in simulated lunar gravity, to use as much material sourced from the Moon (or one day Mars) as possible.

What they learn about the Moon's rocks will help the team determine how their 3D equipment can one day build "landing pads, blast shields, and roads," all per ICON. It's the infrastructure needed for human existence on foreign worlds

"The final deliverable of this contract will be humanity's first construction on another world, and that is going to be a pretty special achievement," Ballard said

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