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Chattanooga startup’s 3D-printed space habitat wins NASA competition

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Chattanooga-based Branch Technology joined with an architectural firm to win first place in a phase of a NASA competition to build a 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration.

The 3D printing company, based in Chattanooga’s small business incubator GigTank, built a number of structural components which could be part of habitats, said Melody Rees, a Branch Technology project manager who was the group’s team leader.

“We won because our structures were the strongest,” she said. “They held the most weight.”

Branch, which has 16 employees in Chattanooga, won with the California-based office of Foster + Partners and took home $250,000 in prize money.

The multi-phase, $2.5 million 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge is designed to advance the construction technology needed to create sustainable housing for the Earth and beyond.

Jim Reuter, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the work during the challenge “puts us that much closer to preparing the way for deep space exploration.”

Sharon Turner, a Branch employee who was part of the team’s “ground control,” said it’s conceivable the structural components could form a habitat to house people on the moon or Mars.

“The next phase is to print one of these habitats,” she said.

Rees said the team used local indigenous material, such as what might be found on the moon or Mars, along with recycled plastics, and it had to build the components within a time period and geometric constraints.

Asked about the company’s interest in the next phase, she said no decision has been made, “but we deeply believe in the efforts of NASA and are seriously considering it.”

“We’re very much interested in advancing the construction technologies necessary to create sustainable architectural solutions on Earth and beyond,” Rees said.

Branch, which also is to build what it calls the world’s first 3D-printed house, at Chattanooga State Community College, was the 2016 winner of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce’s Spirit of Innovation Award.

The company founder and chief executive, Platt Boyd, was drawn to Chattanooga in 2014 by the GigTank, a 12-week program of The Company Lab that helps startup businesses get going.

Rees said the company is “growing a lot right now. We’re beginning to sell our product.”

Branch uses a technology it calls cellular fabrication.

“We’re the only ones capable of that technology,” Rees said.

She said company officials are looking at increasing its capacity and space needs as it grows, but plans are to stay in Chattanooga.

This story first appeared on the Times Free Press

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