Sci-Fi Writer Morgan Gendel Unveils His Plans for a New Mars Habitat
Image credit: Morgan Gendel
We've covered all kinds of stories where sci-fi tech crosses over into real world, from the winners of the Tricorder XPRIZE to NASA's tractor beams, but Morgan Gendel's new project is the first time we've seen a modern sci-fi writer transform their own science-fiction into a reality.
At this year's Escape Velocity event, Gendel, who also wrote the beloved Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Inner Light", unveiled the first images of a new, low-cost Mars habitat, which is cheap, portable, durable, and ingeniously simple.
The Problem: Building Extraterrestrial Habitats
One of the chief problems of space colonization is building infrastructure on another planet: astronauts and colonists need living facilities, labs, garages, etc. All that building material has to come from somewhere, along with the tools and equipment to build it.
Unfortunately, it's insanely costly to move stuff into space (prices range from around $9,000 to $43,000 per pound), and most rockets have limited space. One solution is to have robots create buildings from material that's already on the planet, rather than shipping building materials from Earth. Contour crafting is one method, which amounts to 3-D printing walls and buildings from the soil of a planet using automated crafters and pavers. Here's a video of what it might look like:
This is exactly what Gendel saw on an episode of Futurescape, the 2013 science TV series: robots printing houses, layer by layer. The usual idea is to melt the soil down, put it through extruders, cool it, and turn it into concrete. However, there's one big problem: the robots.
Apart from being large, heavy, and expensive, robots have a lot of moving parts. Each one can be a point of failure in a building operation, and the more points of failure a project has, the greater the potential for something to go wrong. Robots and 3-D printing, Gendel decided, were not the answer. Instead, he decided to go with something simpler.
Solution: The New Mars Habitat
At this point in the presentation, Gendel showed some images of his new project, which appeared to be a white box the size of a trunk.
In reality, the box was a collapsed habitat, which could be inflated with the help of a briefcase-sized pump to become a 250-square-foot, igloo-shaped structure. The igloo has two open doors arranged roughly 160 degrees apart (which can be fitted with airlocks), a built-in solar panel at its apex, and hollow, air-filled struts that hold up the walls and roof.
The hollow struts are the key to the new habitat. Rather than using steel beams or filling the hollow spaces with Martian concrete, Gendel plans to pack the struts with normal Martian soil and use a technology called compressive stitching to tighten the fabric around it, a method of "soil-jamming" which should squeeze the powdery soil until it's as hard and sturdy as rock.
On top of this, Gendel imagines that the habitat will include another empty layer within its fabric, which can be flushed of all its air and made into something like a vacuum flask (Gendel compares it to how a Dewar bottle works). This will allow the habitat to stay insulated, meaning that anything warm inside of it (like humans or machinery) will be able to warm the rest of the habitat. The two doors placed at different angles also mean that habitats can be linked together into a communal living space, which would take the shape of a curve.
The best part about the habitat is that it has uses outside of Mars: it can be deployed in disaster areas (like the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey) to create living facilities for displaced people, or brought to remote places to create a portable lab or shelter. Unlike some space tech, the habitat can be rigorously tested in real-world situations before it's sent up to the stars.
The Story Behind the Habitat
Despite the level of sophistication and planning involved in the project, it all started with Gendel, who had no formal scientific training (other than his voracious reading). He originally came up with the idea of the habitat when he was working on a sci-fi project, and decided after seeing the Futurescape episode that he should run his idea past some friends of his in the scientific community.
After being told by a friend that NASA was dealing with the exact issues Gendel had anticipated (the high cost of transporting heavy equipment, limited volume on rockets, and the need "in-situ operations"), he decided to take the next step. He and Mason Peck from Cornell University assembled an application for a NASA grant, focusing on the unique aspects of the proposed habitat. For Gendel, the keys elements are the soil-jamming, hollow struts, and compressive stitching.
During the talk, Gendel was very upfront about the research he'd done, as well as the questions he and his team were still working on, but the takeaway he gave to the audience was that scientific innovation isn't limited to scientists—anyone can use their imagination to come up with something new and potentially revolutionary. Anyone can make that leap from sci-fi to science.
You can read our previous interview with Morgan Gendel here.