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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NASA is making plans to go back to the moon. And the agency even wants to build a permanent moon base. But there is a problem that most people are not aware of - moon dust. The moon is covered in dust which is incredibly fine and abrasive. It could potentially damage everything from space suits to an astronaut's lungs. And NPR's Nell Boyce reports on NASA's new effort to deal with it.

NELL BOYCE: Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon in 1972. He spent a lot of his time there doing a low-tech chore: dusting.

Mr. EUGENE CERNAN (Astronaut): Let me tell you, is dusting going to be fun tomorrow.

BOYCE: He and his crewmate, Harrison Schmitt, had little dust brushes. But the dark gray dust was relentless. It's stuck to their suits, their tools. It scratched their visors and followed them in to their lunar module. When Schmitt took his helmet off, he got all congested.

Mr. HARRISON SCHMITT (Astronaut): I didn't know I had lunar dust hay fever.

BOYCE: Back on earth, over 30 years later, Schmitt still remembers that weird lunar dust.

Mr. SCHMITT: This is unique dust.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHMITT: It is not like the dust that we're trying to keep out of our houses.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOYCE: For one thing, it smelled like gunpowder. And it hung in the air like smoke. NASA never got much of a chance to study this stuff. Russell Kerschmann is pathologist at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Dr. RUSSELL KERSCHMANN (Pathologist, NASA, Ames Research Center): If but the Apollo program had continued, there would have been a major program to look at moon dust. But when Apollo was shut down, so did the incentive to spend precious resources on this area, kind of went away.

BOYCE: Now, that incentive has returned. NASA wants to get back to the moon and stay for weeks at a time. So later this month, it's bringing experts together to talk about dust.

Moon dust is the product of billions of years of pounding. The moon as no atmosphere to protect it, so it gets pummeled by countless tiny meteorites. They break up the moon's glassy rock into something that looks like volcanic ash. But the tiny bits have jagged edges. Kerschmann says there's almost no research on the long-term effects of breathing it.

Dr. KERSCHMANN: Many of these kinds - similar kinds of materials that are produced in industrial settings on earth are handled quite well by the human body. And there's a few of them that have caused problems over the centuries -silica, asbestos being a couple. Things we just don't know.

BOYCE: He's working with the group to study the health effects in animals. Other researchers are trying to come up with ways to keep dust from damaging equipment, like special coatings that could repel the stuff. Larry Taylor has a lab devoted to moon dust at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He's discovered that it has some unusual properties.

Dr. LARRY TAYLOR (University of Tennessee, Knoxville): For example, most of the lunar dust can be picked up with an ordinary magnet.

BOYCE: That's because the fine grains contain tiny amounts of iron. So you could imagine magnetic filters that would pull the dust out of the air. And that iron makes the dust behave in another strange way.

Dr. TAYLOR: If you put this Lunar soil into a microwave oven, it will melt before your tea water boils.

BOYCE: The melted dust hardens into a glassy blob. Taylor believes that future astronauts could use microwaves to pave the lunar soil or make bricks for building. Moonwalker Harrison Schmitt is glad the engineers are looking into this, though he says NASA shouldn't panic over dust.

Dr. TAYLOR: So I'm just trying to get people to realize that a lot of common sense and good engineering will prevent any problem from arising.

BOYCE: He says living on the moon will mean lots of challenges. Dust should be one of the smaller ones.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: We've got great photos of this stuff on our Web site. I'm looking at a picture of an astronaut covered in moon dust. It's at npr.org.

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