Designing for Humankind: Paving our way to Interplanetary Life

BY Claire Mirran

An interview with Melodie Yashar

With each passing day, we are getting closer and closer to becoming an interplanetary species. The aerospace industry is demanding the most brilliant minds and trailblazers to come together with and solve the most challenging problems that we face for the future of space travel and exploration. To further explore, our team took a deep dive and sat down with Melodie Yashar, head of architecture & Building Performance at ICON, who is designing the first-ever lunar base. Together, we discussed her approach to designing the space habitats, the state of the industry, and where she sees the most exciting opportunities for innovation.

Image: Mars Ice House
Tell us more about your story leading up to your involvement in prototyping the first lunar base, and how you ended up at Icon?

“I entered college as an English and Rhetoric major as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, and later industrial design at Art Center. I, then, transitioned to graduate school where I studied both architecture and human-computer interaction with an emphasis in robotics at Columbia University and Carnegie Mellon. When in grad school, a few friends and colleagues decided to pursue a Mars habitat design project purely as a passion project. It was our submission to the first-ever 3D printed habitat challenge, which we won.”

(The NASA Centennial Challenge for 3D Printed Habitats is a competition designed for deep space exploration targeting the agency’s journey to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The challenge has multiple phases and is designed to advance additive manufacturing technologies needed to create sustainable housing in space.)

“Designing for extra-terrestrial life on the surface of Mars is a radically different thought experiment because in the back of our minds we need to keep in mind a few questions: How can we introduce automation for construction in space? On the human side of things, which of our earthly habits will we preserve? And which will we let go of? These are just a few considerations that add an entirely new dimension to architecture and design thinking for space. The team did a wonderful job, and our efforts were rewarded when we won Phase 3 of the Habitat challenge as well.

In terms of your concept design for Mars House, what gave you the idea to design with Ice? And how did you arrive at the decision?

ICYMI, Mars Ice House is Melodie’s winning proposal for NASA’s 2015 Centennial Challenge for a 3D Printed Habitat on Mars. The structure is constructed from subsurface ice to yield a structural shell and radiation barrier that is self-supporting and enclosed by a pressurized membrane. The Ice House was built to prioritize a life above ground as opposed to one buried beneath Mars regolith.

“What’s interesting is the early sketches looked absolutely nothing like the final result. We had a wide-open approach to what the structure could be. We wanted to approach this project with curiosity and let what we found in the research determine the result.” Melodie emphasized that a lot of materials were on the table for consideration. “The decision to use ice was based on conversations with subject matter experts, a literature review, and embracing an iterative design process, by assessing individual design solutions. For example, we know that the astronauts that someday go to Mars will need to be protected from radiation from space. Ice is a surprisingly effective material for shielding against radiation because it is hydrogen-rich. While the solution seems radical, we did not expect it to gain as much momentum as it has.”

Regardless, we think it’s pretty damn cool.

“Concept design forces you to think aspirationally to consider what is possible today versus what can be possible in the future.”

What’s more interesting is the breadth of professionals that were consulted in order to determine the approach to the project. Melodie’s team worked with experts in robotics, planetary earth science, geology, astrophysics, and more. As the project progressed so did the caliber of the network of subject matter experts, and that collaboration was a large part of the success of Mars House and future projects as well.

Why 3D Printing?

“3D printing our space habitats introduces a material-efficient and versatile method of construction using automation and robotics. This will allow us to build more economically and safely in the future. Realistically, there is too much risk involved if we assume that humans will be building our own habitats on Mars and the Moon. While it will require technology development and resources, long-term, 3D printing is a much more sustainable and scalable approach to building multiple habitats and small settlements. It is quite exciting to envision, once we arrive on the Moon we will have to prospect and locate the right place to live. From there, we will use automated 3D printing to deploy the creation of these pre-designed habitats.”

Melodie and her team have already started building 3D-printed homes here on Earth. Her team at ICON has partnered up with an Austin-based construction technology company to build the first-ever 3D-printed homes.

Given the state of technology and the speed at which we advance, how do you see the next 2–3 years playing out in your work and space travel as a whole?

Space travel will continue to be an element of human curiosity motivating us to continue exploration. We will go back to the Moon and eventually Mars, but in parallel, we will also develop a vibrant low-Earth orbit commercial economy as we develop better transportation solutions.

“Commercial space tourism will kick off in a big way. Flybys of the moon will become a reality with commercial and civilian crews. And this commercial sector will support NASA’s Artemis program for exploration of the Moon, bringing us one step closer to the future of interplanetary life. We will see NASA establish a base on the Moon in the next decade.”

The NewSpace industry has its eyes on space tourism, a market that is expected to be worth at least $3 billion by 2030. And the future of space tourism is among us, as technology evolves we can expect to see commercial suborbital trips and vacations to name a few.

What is the biggest limitation we face in going to mars? Money? Resources? Radiation?

“Of course, the expense is always a concern in this industry. Today, it costs roughly $10,000 per pound of payload to get to the international space station. But even more so, there is still a lot we have to understand from a human perspective about the trip to Mars itself. The problems we will face in getting to Mars are similar to those of the Moon. Both trips will involve a myriad of risks that we need to mitigate, the long-term radiation effects on human health will be quite hazardous and require more research, and many of the construction robotics tasks are in fact quite similar. Because of this, we envision the Moon as a platform that will get us to Mars. It is a lot more feasible of a project to develop the critical infrastructure we need on the Moon. Therefore, much of our efforts are focused on getting back to the Moon and establishing a Lunar base. From there, we will use this opportunity as a stepping stone, to better understand the next steps for the journey to Mars.”

If you had an unlimited budget and resources to deploy your project, what would you do?

“My earlier work in NASA’s competition focused a lot on foundational habitats on Mars, and now the Moon. Amongst the many ideas we have about facilities and programs for the Moon, my students and myself often envision establishing an embassy. This would be a center for collaboration on issues of science, technology, etc. We definitely need and should strive for an international presence on the Moon that is open and inclusive. The geopolitics of the Moon will be quite complicated, and certain nations have not and do not subscribe to the Artemis Accords. At the same time, international collaboration will be essential in further efforts. We will need to prioritize developing a system that is just but that is also equitable and inclusive.”

Much remains to be understood about the Moon, Mars, and beyond. The complex journey to Mars is challenging NASA and its partners to figure out how to get there, land there, live there, and get home. With minds like Melodie, we are getting closer with each passing day to interplanetary life.

About Melodie Yashar

Melodie is the current Director of Architecture & Building Performance at ICON, a startup developing advanced construction technologies to shift the paradigm of home building on Earth and beyond. She is a co-founder of Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch+), a Senior Research Associate with San Jose State University Research Foundation at NASA Ames, and an Associate Researcher within the UC Davis Center for Human/Robotics/Vehicle Integration and Performance (HRVIP). She teaches undergraduate and graduate design at Art Center College of Design. She is a 2019–2020 Future Space Leaders Fellow.