Inflatable Moon Houses Get Icy Test

NASA is thinking about what kind of moon base it wants to build. One option: inflatable houses. Banish thoughts of bouncy-bounces or pool toys from your mind. A high-tech inflatable building will be tested in the extreme environment of Antarctica starting in January.

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Big inflatable moon bounces. Stuff at street fares and kids' parties, and now a variation might actually end up on the moon, pumped up with air.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA wants astronauts back on the moon by 2020. And soon after that, it plans to build a permanent settlement. To get an idea of what that might look like, I recently drove to one moonwalker road, which happens to be in a rural Delaware.

Doug Durney works here at a company called ILC Dover.

Mr. DOUG DURNEY (Director of Marketing, ILC Dover): We're sort of in a middle of a cornfield, but ever since Project Apollo, we've made all the spacesuits for NASA.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says a spacesuit is really a kind of small inflatable habitat that an astronaut can live in. And now the company wants to build a bigger one.

Mr. DURNEY: There it is. That is it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Out on a lawn is something that looks like a long, slightly saggy, dark blue igloo. This structure isn't going to the moon. But soon, it's going to another cold, rugged place - Antarctica.

Mr. LARRY TOUPS (Space Architect, NASA Johnson Space Center): We expect to learn quite a bit from actually deploying the structure in the Antarctic, basically, getting data back from it. That's part of the NASA participation here.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Larry Toups works at NASA on moon base designs. He says scientists who worked down on the ice aren't quite like astronauts.

Mr. TOUPS: But there is a list of challenges that they face that we will be facing going to the moon.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Here's one major one: It's expensive and difficult to get construction material to a remote environment. Dave Cadogan is director of research at ILC Dover.

Mr. DAVE CADOGAN (Director of Research, ILC Dover): When people climb Everest now, they don't bring, you know, a big - a boxy structure with them. They bring a tent, and it's packaged, and it's lightweight. And that's really - we're just trying to do the exact same thing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The goal is something that packs like a tent but acts like a building. We put on special white booties to keep things clean and step inside.

Mr. CADOGAN: So you're coming basically through the airlock. Watch your step.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: It looks like a big bluish room with walls that feel like rubber. Unlike a kid's bouncy bounce, it can withstand a hundred-mile-per-hour winds, and it has all kinds of sensors embedded in it so NASA engineers in Houston can monitor its health as it endures the harsh Antarctic winter. I asked Larry Toups if he really thought part of the future moon base would be inflatable.

Mr. TOUPS: I would say there's probably a good chance.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Would you want to live in here?

Mr. TOUPS: Probably so for a period of time.

Unidentified Man: Only if he's on the moon.

Mr. TOUPS: Only if I'm on the moon. Yeah.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says he's sure astronauts would put up with a home the size of a closet as long as it's in space, but he'd like to give them as much room as possible.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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