In this decade, multiple space agencies and commercial space entities will be taking us back to the Moon. But unlike the Apollo Era, the goal of these programs is not “footprints and flags,” but to establish the necessary infrastructure to keep going back. In particular, NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, and China are all planning on establishing outposts that will allow for scientific research and a sustained human presence.

The ESA is currently showcasing what its outpost will look like at the 17th annual Architecture Exhibition at the La Biennale di Venezia museum in Venice. It’s known as the International Moon Village, which was designed by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) with technical support from the ESA. This same company recently unveiled a prototype of the skeletal metal component that will one day be part of the Village’s lunar habitats.

The component was built by MX3D, an Amersterdam-based 3D printing architecture and design firm specializing in Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM). This process involves fusing metal wires with lasers to create lightweight metal objects with high structural strength. The company is renowned for creating the 3D printed metal bridge that spans the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal in Amsterdam (shown below).

Her Majesty the Queen, Máxima opens the first 3D printed steel bridge in the city of Amsterdam. Credit: MX3D

The skeletal, smooth web pattern will be part of the flooring for each habitat that collectively makes up the ESA’s International Lunar Village. The prototype was created using a robotic 3D printer out of 308LSi stainless steel over the course of about 10 days (246 hours), measures 4.5 m (~15 ft) in diameter, and has a total mass of approximately 395 kg (over 870 lbs). As ESA Advanced Manufacturing Engineer Advenit Makaya said in a recent ESA press release:

“This is a remarkable achievement from MX3D, which further highlights the potential of this additive manufacturing technique for an increasing range of space applications. The design flexibility and the possibility to combine the printed structure with embedded monitoring systems – as demonstrated in the 3D-printed bridge in Amsterdam – are worth investigating for applications in space structures. This technique could also be considered for in-situ construction of infrastructure during sustainable exploration missions, for instance by using metallic feedstock derived from the locally available regolith.”

The floor component consists of six separate segments that were printed vertically before being welded together. When integrated with SOM’s design for a four-story semi-inflatable habitat, the 3D printed structure will be supported by three columns and covered by a series of floor panels. Unfortunately, SOM could not feature it as part of their exhibit – titled “Life Beyond Earth” – but manages to convey the scale of the lunar habitats that they are developing. Said Daniel Inocente, SOM’s Senior Designer for the study:

“The innovative floor design is supported from columns in the habitat walls, cantilevering towards the perimeter and centre. We looked at the manufacturing constraints and used our analysis to interpolate a web pattern that followed the angular limits of the 3D printing machines. The cross section and thickness was also analysed and differentiated to reduce the overall mass – with reduced thickness at the exterior/interior boundaries.”