South Dakota Tribal College is part of NASA’s plan to build shelters for use on the Moon and Mars


Sinte Gleska University, a tribal college in Mission, SD, may soon partner with NASA that would lead to new science education programs, more affordable housing for state reservations, and the development of 3D housing that could one day be on the moon or could be used Mars.

The National Aeronautic and Space Administration has already committed to the partnership, providing an investment of approximately $250,000 for the project, which has the working title Enhancing Research in Additive Manufacturing Processes for Lunar Application and Planetary Use in Tribal Housing Development.

On Monday, February 14, 2022, the South Dakota House Commerce and Energy Committee will consider a bill to provide $300,000 in state matching funds to meet NASA project requirements.

NASA hopes to enlist faculty, staff, and students from Sinte Gleska and other South Dakota colleges to learn how to use 3D printing technology to design and build concrete homes that can be built quickly and at potentially one-third the cost of traditional wood homes can become. The homes would provide new affordable housing opportunities in needy reservation areas of South Dakota.

NASA would then monitor the condition of homes during intense heat and freezing temperatures to determine if the homes can withstand the environment on the Moon or Mars. NASA also wants to know if 3D cases could potentially be built remotely on another planet by designers on Earth.

The university and three Native American tribes—the Sioux tribes of Yankton, Crow Creek, and Oglala Lakota—form the South Dakota side of the partnership. Total funding for the project includes the purchase of a high-tech 3D printer, which will be used to design homes that will be built from layered liquid concrete applied by machines.

The proposed project is viewed by supporters as a way to improve the lives and likely futures of thousands of Native Americans in South Dakota and to bring about lasting, positive change in their communities where affordable housing is a critical need.

The program is also seen as an opportunity to create a cutting-edge curriculum for students at Sinte Gleska and other South Dakota universities, and potentially fuel the creation of other industries related to 3D home construction.

“It’s quite an exciting opportunity for the state and tribes to work together on what may be a game-changing economic development project,” said Ross Garelick Bell, a registered South Dakota lobbyist who has spent five years bringing all sides of the project together. “She [Sinte Gleska] could become a major player in the 3D housing industry and it would put South Dakota on the map in terms of learning these new technologies.”

This artist’s rendering shows plans for 3D designed 2,000 square foot homes that are completed on the left and under construction on the right for a proposed housing development in Texas. Photo: Courtesy of ICON

The use of 3D printers in residential construction, also known as “additive building,” is relatively new and is similar to other 3D printing technologies that use computer-aided design to create blueprints for products made of plastic, liquid, concrete, or solid powders.

In 3D printer house building, designs for exterior and interior walls and other components are programmed into a computer. The design data is then sent to a machine with an outer arm that rapidly ejects liquid concrete in even layers that eventually form vertical or horizontal walls or panels, including rounded or curved features. The houses can then be fitted with a traditional roof and siding, and the interior walls can be clad with siding or timber so that concrete is not visible. Walls can be constructed with hollow cores that can be filled with insulation.

Companies using the technology say homes can be built in days, potentially at a third of the material cost of a wood-frame or handcrafted home.

NASA is investing money in 3D printing in hopes the technology can be used to build structures and possibly houses on the Moon and Mars. The investigative lunar project is called the Artemis Mission, and the Martian project is called the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, or MEPAG. NASA also has a project team called Moon to Mars Planetary Autonomous Construction Technologies.

As suggested, the Sinte Gleska project could potentially use 3D printer technology provided by ICON, a Texas-based home fabrication and research company that bills itself on its website as “the construction technology company bringing construction-scale 3D printing to address the global… housing crisis sets in” describes and prepare to build on other worlds.”

ICON’s line of 3D printers, known as the Vulcan, has already been used to design and build six small homes for formerly homeless residents of Austin, Texas, as well as several other larger homes now occupied in the area, a 3,800 square feet large concrete barracks at Camp Swift in Bastrop, Texas, and a 20-foot diameter concrete rocket pad for NASA that took only 21 hours to design and build.

ICON’s latest project is using 3D printing technology to build 100 concrete houses in partnership with national housing company Lennar. The company is working with NASA to build a structure called Mars Dune Alpha, a 1,700-square-foot building that will simulate mission operations on Mars.

Click the arrow to watch ICON’s video of its 3D printer-designed home being built with Lavacrete, a proprietary concrete material developed by ICON. Image/Video: Courtesy ICONplay video

Shawn Bordeaux, director of the Institute of Tribal Lands at Sinte Gleska University, said the project with NASA would provide the Tribal College with high-tech resources and improve its ability to engage in new research that will improve job prospects for students, primarily Indians would improve in the fields of science and technology.

“It would be great for our students because it will give them skills that will make them very employable,” said Bordeaux, who is also a Democratic state representative from Mission. “People will seek them out to do this type of work in the future.”

Bordeaux said the homes being built would help alleviate the shortage of quality, affordable housing that has existed for years on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and other Native American communities and reservations.

“It’s about research, but it’s also about housing because we need to improve our housing program,” Bordeaux said.

Partnering with NASA would also give the Sinte Gleska and South Dakota Native American tribes new status and a sense of pride in being part of a forward-looking project with truly interplanetary goals.

“It’s the mission to Mars,” Bordeaux said. “We are literally getting funds to support a mission to Mars; We would be part of that effort, and how exciting is that?

A fully 3D designed house is built from a concrete-like material that can be seen in layers on the exterior walls, but is finished to look like a traditionally built house rather than a typical concrete block home. Photo: Courtesy of Ross Garelick Bell

Rep. Rocky Blare, R-Ideal, the lead sponsor of HB 1281, said the project has the potential to boost educational opportunities and economic development in a remote part of South Dakota where growth has been slow.

“For the portion of the population and areas that this will focus on, in central South Dakota and on reservations, every occasion is celebrated like this,” he said.

Blare said he was confident the budget allocation for the project would be passed in committee and hopefully approved by the entire legislature.

“People are excited to see what that is,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting and should go through.”


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