How AI SpaceFactory Will Build Mars Colonies Using 3D Printing And AI
Tell us your background and about your startup
Before founding AI SpaceFactory, I was at the peak of success as an architect for a big-name company designing skyscrapers. I was lead designer of 3 of the world’s 10 tallest towers and chairman of a global organization called the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
Then something happened—maybe I got bored, or maybe I was bitten by the space bug a long time ago and remembered my first calling. I started at MIT to study astrophysics, but somewhere between multivariable calculus and flux equations I realized I wasn’t very good at math. I opened up the MIT course catalog and picked the first major that didn’t require any more math: and that was Architecture. It turned out I wasn’t much of an astrophysicist but I did make a damn good architect.
I had given up on one dream but found another. Now, we live in exciting times where these dreams can converge. Space, architecture, and technology are all part of one big mission now. I founded AI SpaceFactory two years ago with the mission to transform how we build on Earth and beyond. A place where the best architects on this planet can become the architects of another.
Building on another planet is not just a design or a technology problem: it is a construction problem. AI SpaceFactory bring together design and engineering services, materials R&D, and autonomous manufacturing technologies to construct habitats and surface infrastructure—on and beyond Earth. We are on the path to becoming the first multi-planetary building company.
AI SpaceFactory is a place where the best architects on this planet can become the architects of another. We currently employ 38 architects and technologists working across three global offices in our Earth and Space divisions. Our second year revenues increased 305% to $6.1 million, primarily from design services. We expect future growth will be driven by our new business lines as we take our space technology to market.
How did the idea come about and what was it like getting started?
Most of us came from a background in designing skyscrapers. Collectively we’ve worked on 3 of the 10 tallest towers on the planet – and it’s work we are still doing and pursuing to new heights.
The key moment for us was watching SpaceX land the Falcon 9 on a floating drone barge. We just knew we had to be a part of it. Where the sky’s the limit, space is limitless. That was April 8, 2016.
In less than a year, we founded AI SpaceFactory with the goal of becoming the architects of the future. You can’t build the future with bricks and mortar. From day one, we understood our mission revolved around developing the technologies to enable the future.
Today, AI SpaceFactory is as much a technology company as we are an architectural practice. Those two pursuits came together on our first space project, Marsha.
"We envision the first phase of development on Mars will be like a Martian ‘Stone Age’."
Why is the problem you are solving important?
The biggest obstacle to building in space is that construction materials are extremely expensive to launch. At a cost of $100 million to land a 5-ton lunar payload, an average Earth home weighing 50-tons would cost one billion dollars and require 10 roundtrips to the Moon to deliver. For the same cost, we could land 50 robotic rovers and build a lunar village—if we learn to harvest materials from the surface.
Building in space is also dangerous. The surface of the Moon is covered in a fine layer of Moon dust made of sharp, microscopic grains which can slice into an astronaut’s lung if breathed in too deeply. With no atmosphere to protect the surface from constant bombardment by solar winds, Moon dust can become electrostatically charged and cling to equipment and spacesuits. Building on the Moon is like working on a construction site with super-charged asbestos. It is work better suited to robots than humans.
AI SpaceFactory’s technology uses materials from the Lunar/Martian surface as the feedstock to robotically 3D print buildings and infrastructure. The use of in-situ resources coupled with autonomous construction allows us to build up structures, layer by layer, safely and efficiently.
Buildings such as our proposed Mars Habitat, Marsha, are one possible outcome—but we also need to consider surface infrastructure. It is likely the first things AI SpaceFactory builds on the Moon and Mars are the roads, landing pads, and hangers needed to support landing of heavier rockets and equipment. Proving out our technology on non-life supporting systems will provide the foundation to develop more complex structures, such as Marsha and other habitats.
Colonization of the Moon and Mars will pave the way to deep space exploration and provide access to energy and resources. Planet Earth has a finite amount of resources and we have already brought our climate to a tipping point—yet a third of the planet lives in substandard housing. The technologies AI SpaceFactory is developing for Space will transform how we build on Earth.
In testing for NASA, we validated the use of biopolymer and basalt composites as a super-strong construction material. These materials are in abundance on Earth and are more sustainable alternatives to concrete and steel, which generate 9% of global carbon emissions. Our technology is unlocking new and sustainable ways to build here, now, on this planet.
What are some achievements you're proud of?
Placing in both the design and construction phases of the NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge was a huge win for us. It validates our belief that architecture can drive technology development. The building industry is traditionally slow to adopt innovation—yet the challenges ahead in developing the Moon and Mars requires experienced builders.
Over the past half-year AI SpaceFactory has transcended the norms of architectural practice and began to 3D print, integrate robotics, and advance material R&D. We are well on our way to becoming a space company and are pursuing applications of our technology on Earth.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced? How did you overcome them?
Nothing about building on Mars should be easy.
Just getting started was hard because the aspirations are enormous. We were starting two companies in one - an ‘earthly’ architectural practice and a space tech startup. In my first six months I spent 100 days flying coach class around the world drumming up business, working on projects, and opening offices in the US, China, and Europe. Looking back, it was a crazy time, but it worked because I have great co-founders. People who work well together, trust in each other, and have great vision.
We choose to go to Mars because it is a challenge. Time and resources are considerations, but these fall into place with the right mindset – setting clear objectives and working really hard to achieve them. Being a space company is like running a marathon. It’s long and hard work, but knowing each step gets you closer to your goal keeps you running.
What are your next steps?
We are making the dream of living on Mars a reality, layer by layer. We made the decision early on that designing Marsha wasn’t enough: we wanted to build it. It’s hard work which involves design, engineering, robotics, and fabrication.
So far, we printed our way to two sub-scale prototypes, subsequently validated by NASA. The challenge will culminate in a 1:3 scale test habitat which AI SpaceFactory will print in front of a live audience from May 1 to May 3.
We already have plans for our next habitat after that – which involves recycling the material from the prototype and reprinting it here on Earth. It’s called Tera, short for ’terrestrial analogue’—the earthly cousin to Marsha.
What is your vision for humanity in space long-term?
We envision the first phase of development on Mars will be like a Martian ‘Stone Age’ where the initial structures are rudimentary roads, launch pads, and rocky shelters—the infrastructure needed to support a future Mars colony.
The first inhabitants will be mostly robots and a few hardy explorers who will lay the groundwork needed to build more complex structures. Anything manufactured, like a window or a door, will be flown in from Earth. Subsequent Martian ‘bronze’ and ‘iron’ ages will bring nascent Mars industries such as mining, water harvesting, agriculture, power generation – and the first pioneers.
Only after a self-sustaining system is in place, do we expect to see large-scale colonization.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
First, make a roadmap how you plan to get from A to Z – and think about what is the B, C, D, etc that will get you there. Each of these steps should serve to advance and validate your technology, and point to revenue streams and commercialization opportunities along the way.
Second, know your North Star. Ours is Mars. It’s easy to get lost chasing shiny objects when things are good, or to feel defeated when things are rough. Always have sight where you are going, and why.
"It’s easy to get lost chasing shiny objects when things are good, or to feel defeated when things are rough. Always have sight where you are going, and why."
What’s the best way for the public to support you in your mission?
AI SpaceFactory is delighted to announce our plans for the first time here. Following construction of our sub-scale Marsha prototype on May 4, we are launching our next project, TERA, to be constructed in Fall 2019. Short for “Terrestrial Analog”, Tera is Marsha’s earthly cousin—a future habitat which we plan to 3D print in the countryside surrounding New York City.
Importantly, Tera will be constructed with material recycled from the Marsha prototype. Tera will validate the use of biopolymer as a sustainable and recyclable building material—an alternative to energy intensive concrete and steel.
Like Marsha, Tera is a multistorey habitat designed to accommodate a crew of four to six. Tera will be made available through Airbnb to increase public engagement and promote awareness of the need for renewable materials and technologies to transform how we build on Earth. Tera residents will have the opportunity to provide feedback and operational data which AI SpaceFactory will use to improve future designs, paving the way for future Earth and Space habitats.
Watch for AI SpaceFactory’s Tera on Kickstarter or Indiegogo later in May and have the chance to join the first crew. We are crowdsourcing the first 668 ‘sols’ before opening up to the general public on Airbnb. Be the first to help shape the future of living on Mars!
Where can people find out more about you and follow along?
You can follow along by going to our website and seeing our latest posts on the AI SpaceFactory blog.
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