Budget cuts and recession drama may have temporarily shelved America's dreams of a moon colony, but Russia's -- not so much. The word on the street is that Vlad Putin not only wants a permanent Russian base on the moon by 2030 but also wants to harvest helium from our nearest space neighbor. Ambitious? Yes. Insanely dangerous? Probably. But not for the reasons you'd expect. Soviet Russia, you'll remember, never quite finished its part of the race to the moon, so they don't know what's up there. And what's up there is MOONDUST.
Look at the famous footprint Buzz Aldrin left on the moon's surface:
It looks like mud. But it can't be, because there's no water up there. What you're seeing is dust that is the consistency of flour. Or if you want, cocaine.
Now imagine that this cocaine sticks to everything it touches and is so fine that it seeps into your space suit, yet so rough that it scratches your skin like sandpaper. And pretend that instead of getting you high, it gives you hay fever. And while we're at it, let's pretend that it clogs up your lungs and kills you.
Fun game, right? It wasn't so fun when the actual Apollo astronauts played it 40 years ago.
Back in 1972, Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan were so busy being the last humans to walk on the moon that they didn't remember to wipe their feet before re-entering their space capsule. Which was surprising, because they already knew how troublesome moondust could be. During their mission, the dust clogged the joints in their suits to the point that they couldn't move, and the dust was so erosive that it wore through three layers of Kevlar-like boot material. Thanks to their childlike negligence, that same moondust found its way into the ship, and they were stuck with it for the whole ride home.
The first thing they noticed about the dust was that it went airborne right away, and that it smelled like gunpowder. Before too long, the astronauts couldn't help but breathe in the stuff, and Schmitt later complained of congestion and a kind of "lunar hay fever." Fortunately, that little bit of dust was just enough to give him the moon sniffles and not much else, and Schmitt felt fine the next day.
What we've learned since then, however, doesn't bode well for future moon travelers. Scientists later found out that moondust has properties similar to those of freshly fractured quartz, or silica, and that stuff is lethal to human lungs. On Earth, it affects people working in quarries or mines, and about 16,000 people died of silicosis between 1968 and 2002.
And don't get us started on Mars dust. The dirt on the Red Planet is so dangerous that NASA calls it the No. 1 risk of a manned expedition to Mars. It's corrosive and gritty and doesn't just sit there like moondust; it whips itself into dust devils, slapping everything in sight like an angry space pimp. Scientists don't even know whether the stuff is toxic yet. Future astronauts are going to have to be part spacemen and part housekeepers, because they're going to have to keep their space houses fastidiously clean to stay alive up there.