Sick of the Moon?
Will astronauts get sick of the moon? A group of students and faculty at the University of Southern Maine are conducting research to find out.

Jamie Young performs an experiment behind a glass panel

Jamie Young is among the students testing simulated lunar material for toxicology. Image Credit: John Wise Sr.

The question, however, isn't whether they'll get tired of living and working in the moon's "magnificent desolation" -- as Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin described it. What the USM research team is working to establish is what health issues astronauts may encounter during stays on the moon.

NASA is currently working to develop the vehicles and facilities that will allow astronauts to return to the moon by 2020, as part of a continuing program of exploration that will later lead to humans traveling to Mars and beyond. The agency plans to establish an outpost on the lunar surface where astronauts will be able to live for months at a time. While these long-duration missions will provide greater research opportunities than the Apollo missions of four decades ago, they will also present additional challenges.

Among those challenges are the potential problems caused by long-term exposure to lunar dust. Astronauts on the Apollo missions had to deal with the dust, but since the missions were only days long, the problems were limited. When astronauts live on the moon for months at a time, NASA will need to better understand the dangers the dust presents in order to prevent problems.

Some of the challenges presented by lunar dust were almost immediately obvious. Because it was formed by micrometeorite impacts on the rocky surface, lunar dust is essentially powdered glass. Its abrasiveness can damage equipment and potentially astronauts' health. Given that the abrasiveness of the dust also makes it cling to surfaces, there is particular concern that long-term inhalation of lunar dust could cause lung problems.

Other potential dangers of lunar dust are still relatively unknown. One of the issues that the University of Southern Maine team will be examining is whether lunar material would be toxic to astronauts living on the moon. Although lunar samples were brought back from the moon, they have rarely been studied for toxicology, according to John Wise Sr., director of the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology at USM's Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health.

The toxicology research project is one of four in Maine receiving partial funding from NASA through the Maine Space Grant Consortium. Implemented by NASA in 1989, the Space Grant project contributes to the nation's science enterprise by funding research, education and public service projects through a national network of 52 university-based consortia. The project supports NASA's priority education outcome of contributing to the development of the STEM workforce in disciplines needed to achieve NASA's strategic goals through a portfolio of investments.

John Wise Jr. places samples in a centrifuge

John Wise Jr. is part of the team of students working with his father on the research. Image Credit: John Wise Sr.

Previous studies have indicated lunar dust could have toxic effects, but the Wise Laboratory team will conduct experiments to learn more about the exact impact the dust would have on DNA in different systems of the human body. Rather than working directly with actual lunar material samples, the team will conduct research using a lunar dust simulant containing iron, aluminum and manganese. This simulant will be compared to silica, titanium dioxide, chromium and nanoparticles in order to understand how lunar dust compares in toxic effect and potency to Earth-based dusts.

The research team consists of doctoral and master's students working alongside undergraduate and high school students, as well as a local high school teacher. The undergraduate students assist in conducting experiments in all areas of the research, with more experienced students training newer team members in research techniques. The high school teacher will be working with four students from her school over the summer on the lunar dust project.

The project has already stimulated more interest in the research among the students. In complementary work, undergraduate students in the Wise Laboratory will be conducting experiments in reduced-gravity conditions on an aircraft through NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Project. The aircraft can simulate a range of gravity conditions from microgravity to almost double Earth's gravity, including the lunar environment of one-sixth of Earth's gravity. The project was student-initiated and was inspired by the larger lunar dust project. After completing this year's flight with known toxicants, the students hope to fly again next year using the lunar dust simulant.

The knowledge gained through the Wise Laboratory study will help NASA develop countermeasures to protect astronauts from harmful effects of lunar dust exposure. Even if the challenges are greater, NASA is as dedicated now as it was with Apollo to not only sending humans to the moon, but bringing them safely home.

Related Resources
NASA National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program   →
Reduced Gravity Student Flight Program   →
Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology -- Lunar Dust Studies   →
NASA Exploration
NASA Education

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services