Moon Settlers May Be "Ski" Racers, Helium Miners, TV Stars

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(Watch a video about NASA's next moon mission.)

Explorers on such a mission will face a variety of new day-to-day challenges, the scientists said.

One challenge will be dealing with lunar dust, which is abrasive and easily tracked into habitats. It's nasty stuff, smelling like spent gunpowder, said Schmitt, who breathed a bit of it on each reentry into the lunar lander.

Future moon dwellers can eliminate most of it by leaving their spacesuits in an antechamber of their habitat, much as people in some cultures leave their shoes at the door.

Any dust that does get inside can be removed magnetically or via electrical fields, Schmitt said.

A bigger problem, the experts said, will be making a lunar settlement economically viable.

The base will have to provide some kind of economic return if humans are to stay on the moon indefinitely, the scientists agreed.

(See "NASA Aims to Open Moon for Business" [July 25, 2006].)

Initially, the return on investment will be vast amounts of new knowledge, scientists said.

The moon will likely provide important sites for large telescopes that will peer to the edges of the universe and search for habitable planets circling other stars.

(See a National Geographic magazine feature on the search for other Earths.)

There may also be opportunities to make money, possibly through television and the Internet.

"I think there's a potentially huge market for interactive television [and] real-time virtual reality," said Paul Spudis of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

For his part, Schmitt, the former astronaut, thinks one of the moon's most valuable resources is helium-3, a lightweight form of helium contained in rocks on the moon's surface.

The material is so valuable as a potential source of nuclear-fusion power that a mere 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of it could replace 140 million U.S. dollars' worth of coal, Schmitt said.

Fusion technology has yet to be perfected, and probably won't be anytime soon (nuclear fission is the technique used in current nuclear power plants.

But there is already a market for helium-3 on Earth, in medical imaging technology—such as PET (positron emission tomography) scans, which are often used to spot cancerous cells—he added.

Whatever else they do, lunar residents will also have time to enjoy their environment, the scientists speculated.

Perhaps they'll run races, perfecting the gait invented by Schmitt.

It should be easy after a little cross-country skiing, the former astronaut said. "You use the same rhythm."

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