Nearly half a century from the first man on the moon, a renewed space race is brewing. This time, it is not about being the first to walk on the moon, but rather being the first to inhabiting it. On the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we focus on lunar architecture and bring you another “giant leap for mankind“: a 3D printed Moon Base by Foster + Partners and the European Space Agency (ESA) imagined for the first ever moon colony.

Foster + Partners is part of a consortium set up by the ESA to explore the possibilities of 3D printing to construct lunar habitations. Addressing the challenges of transporting materials to the moon, the study is investigating the use of lunar soil, known as regolith, as building matter.

The practice has designed a lunar base to house four people, which can offer protection from meteorites, gamma radiation and high-temperature fluctuations. The base is first unfolded from a tubular module that can be transported by space rocket. An inflatable dome then extends from one end of this cylinder to provide a support structure for construction. Layers of regolith are then built up over the dome by a robot-operated 3D printer to create a protective shell.

“As a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials”, explains Xavier De Kestelier, Partner, Foster + Partners Specialist Modelling Group, “our lunar habitation follows a similar logic. It has been a fascinating and unique design process, which has been driven by the possibilities inherent in the material. We look forward to working with ESA and our consortium partners on future research projects.”


Lunar outpost near the moon's south pole. [Credit: Fosters & ESA]
Lunar outpost near the moon’s south pole. [Credit: Fosters & ESA]

To ensure strength while keeping the amount of binding ‘ink’ to a minimum, the shell is made up of a hollow closed cellular structure similar to foam. The geometry of the structure was designed by Foster + Partners in collaboration with consortium partners – it is groundbreaking in demonstrating the potential of 3D printing to create structures that are close to natural biological systems. Simulated lunar soil has been used to create a 1.5-tonne mockup and 3D printing tests have been undertaken on a smaller scale in a vacuum chamber to echo lunar conditions. The planned site for the base is at the moon’s southern pole, where there is near perpetual sunlight on the horizon.


Autonomous robots are used to 3D print a cellular structure that protects the inhabitants from gamma radiation, meteorite impacts and extreme temperature fluctuations. [Credit: Fosters & ESA]
Autonomous robots are used to 3D print a cellular structure that protects the inhabitants from gamma radiation, meteorite impacts and extreme temperature fluctuations. [Credit: Fosters & ESA]

The consortium includes Italian space engineering firm Alta SpA, working with Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna. Monolite UK supplied the D-Shape™ printer and developed a European source for lunar regolith stimulant, which has been used for printing all samples and demonstrators.

“This project is a significant and pioneering step in space age construction,” says Lord Norman Foster, “working with our European colleagues, it is part of our on-going commitment to research and innovation.”


This 1.5 tonne building block was produced as a demonstration of 3D printing techniques using lunar soil.†The design is based on a hollow closed-cell structure ñ reminiscent of bird bones ñ to give a good combination of strength and weight. [Source: ESA]
This 1.5-tonne building block was produced as a demonstration of 3D printing techniques using lunar soil.†The design is based on a hollow closed-cell structure reminiscent of bird bones to give a good combination of strength and weight. [Source: ESA]
Mosaic of the lunar south pole from images acquired by ESA's SMART-1 mission. The lunar poles are spared the temperature extremes of the two-week lunar days and nights experienced in lower latitudes. This mosaic is composed of images of the lunar south pole, taken between May 2005 and February 2006, during different phases of the mission and from a distance of about 400 km, allowing medium-field snapshots (about 40 km across) and high-resolution views (40 m/pixel) of the region. From 109 of 113 SMART-1 images of the Shackleton area taken during the season, an illuminated peak - located 7 km from the Shackleton rim - was identified. This "Peak of (almost) Eternal Light" could be used to supply electricity - via solar panels - for a future international lunar base. [Source: ESA]
Mosaic of the lunar south pole from images acquired by ESA’s SMART-1 mission. The lunar poles are spared the temperature extremes of the two-week lunar days and nights experienced in lower latitudes. This mosaic is composed of images of the lunar south pole, taken between May 2005 and February 2006, during different phases of the mission and from a distance of about 400 km, allowing medium-field snapshots (about 40 km across) and high-resolution views (40 m/pixel) of the region. From 109 of 113 SMART-1 images of the Shackleton area taken during the season, an illuminated peak – located 7 km from the Shackleton rim – was identified. This “Peak of (almost) Eternal Light” could be used to supply electricity – via solar panels – for a future international lunar base. [Source: ESA]