Two months ago, NASA announced the broad outlines of its plan for an eventual lunar outpost on the moon built on the rim of a crater near one of the moon’s poles where there would be sunlight and Earth could be seen year-round. The outpost would serve as a base for lunar research and Mars exploration, and some envision an eventual platform for luxury hotels, astronomical observatories and helium-3 mining operations. NASA and its corporate partners are already building prototypes to test some unorthodox ideas, such as inflatable habitats. The metal-hulled modules used on the international space station typically weigh 30,000 pounds, which would be too heavy for moonships that are currently being planned to have a maximum payload capacity of only 13,000 pounds. Inflatable modules could get around that limitation. David Cadogan, research director at ILC Dover, said the modules would be compressed to fit a smaller space on NASA’s smaller spaceships, dropped off on the moon, and only then filled with air, equipment and all the comforts of a lunar home. Bigelow Aerospace already has lofted one inflatable test module into orbit and is gearing up to launch another one in April. Prototypes will be tested in Antarctica and other extreme environments on Earth. Twin giants of America’s space industry, The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, are involved in planning efforts to start building a permanent moon base in 2010, but less conventional players include Illinois-based Caterpillar and allied companies that have been advising NASA on the dynamics of dirt and the challenges of moving heavy equipment over the lunar surface. (www.msnbc.com)
MSNBC.com (2/1/07); Alan Boyle