The moon rises in Cairo, May 5, 2012. (AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS)

LOS ANGELES — Imagine a machine that could build a 2,000 square foot home in under 24 hours. Imagine one that could do that on the surface of the moon?

It may seem unrealistic, but Behrokh Khoshnevis —  an engineering professor at the University of Southern California — has developed a way to do just that. With a $500,000 grant from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts division, Khoshnevis is retooling a construction system he pioneered 10 years ago that will help scientists establish permanent lunar structures.

"Today, it looks impossible to send such technology to space,” said Khoshnevis, who is also the  director of USC’s manufacturing engineering graduate program. “But 100 years ago, no one imagined that people would get into a machine and go to the other side of the planet in 15 hours."

The technology, known as contour crafting, employs 3-D printing to construct cement buildings at a rapid pace. In the past, proposals for lunar construction were based on taking materials to the moon for assembly. But that can be costly — just one kilogram can costs upwards of $100,000 to transport, Khoshnevis said.

“Use the material that’s there and then use robotic systems that will take energy from the sun to operate instead,” he suggested.

Sitting in the corner of his South Los Angeles office, Khoshnevis watches as his 3-D printer works fervently to construct a plastic prototype, layer by layer. Putting together the minuscule model takes over two hours — a pace Khoshnevis isn’t pleased with.

Khoshnevis insists his goal is to see contour crafting aid in the exploration of the moon and Mars — not to build Martian real estate or colonize the moon, á la Newt Gingrich’s campaign pledge.

Despite NASA’s commitment, it could take decades before Khoshnevis’s system can start building infrastructure on other planets. The technology must pass a simulation at NASA’s desert research facility in Arizona before it can proceed further. Once completed, NASA will get its hands on the machine to ensure it can be used in space.

But sending his technology to space is a labor of love, Khoshnevis explained. He sees it as an expansion of human potential.

“We've looked deep into the universe…we've looked within ourselves at DNA structure. Humans are amazing,” he said. “We should allow ourselves to dream the impossible.”

Parvini is a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Gottlieb reported from Washington D.C.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

‘We’re NASA and we know it’ (video)

Blue rocks on Mars?

Mars Curiosity team members head to reddit for AMA