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Mushroom houses: NASA wants to grow its own Mars habitats from fungi

Bricks produced using mycelium, yard waste and wood chips as a part of the myco-architecture project. Similar materials could be used to build habitats on the Moon or Mars.
Bricks produced using mycelium, yard waste, and wood chips as a part of the myco-architecture project. Similar materials could be used to build habitats on the Moon or Mars. NASA

When future astronauts set out for the moon or for Mars, they’ll need some shelter. And while you might imagine cities on other planets being made of steel, or glass, or some high-tech carbon fiber compound, NASA has other ideas. The agency is funding research into growing their own habitats out of fungi.

As wild as the idea sounds, it makes a lot of practical sense. Carrying anything into space is difficult and expensive, and hauling huge amounts of building materials onto a rocket isn’t feasible. So space agencies are increasingly interested in using approaches that use materials that are readily available, like building structures out of the dusty regolith material that covers Mars’s surface, or involve very lightweight materials, like inflatable habitats.

In the case of the fungi, the idea is to create a lightweight, compact structure that contains dormant fungi for travel. When astronauts arrive at their destination, they need to “just add water” to let the fungi grow around a framework to create a full habitat.

The project is part of a program called NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) that aims to come up with futuristic ideas for space travel. “As NASA prepares to explore farther into the cosmos than ever before, it will require new science and technology that doesn’t yet exist,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “NASA’s space technology team and the NIAC program unlock visionary ideas – ideas that make the impossible, possible. This new research is a steppingstone to our Artemis campaign as we prepare to go back to the Moon to live, to learn, to invent, to create — then venture to Mars and beyond.”

The myco-architecture concept has previously been funded as an early phase project, and was capable of growing this nightmarish but intriguing stool out of fungi in around two weeks.

A stool constructed out of mycelia after two weeks of growth. The next step is a baking process process that leads to a clean and functional piece of furniture.
A stool constructed out of mycelia after two weeks of growth. The next step is a baking process process that leads to a clean and functional piece of furniture. 2018 Stanford-Brown-RISD iGEM Team

Now, the project has been awarded a further round of funding to develop the technology and to work on a potential future demonstration mission. The team will work to optimize the materials they are growing, and eventually plan to test out the concept in low-Earth orbit, such as on the International Space Station.

“Mycotecture Off Planet exemplifies how advanced concepts can change how we envision future exploration missions,” said John Nelson, NIAC Program Executive. “As NASA embarks on the next era of space exploration, NIAC helps the agency lay the necessary groundwork to bring innovative visions to life.”

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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