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Review: The Impact of Lunar Dust on Human Exploration

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The Impact of Lunar Dust on Human Exploration
by Joel S. Levine (ed.)
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021
hardcover, 303 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-5275-6308-7
GBP64.99 (approx. US$90)

NASA’s inspector general last week dealt another blow to the agency’s plans to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024. A report concluded that the next-generation spacesuits that the astronauts would wear on the moonwalks won’t be ready until at least April 2025, thanks to a mix of technical, funding, and management issues. The spacesuits, called Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units or xEMUs, will cost about $1 billion to develop.

One reason the suits will be so expensive to develop is that they must be designed to withstand the harsh lunar environment, including lunar dust. While on Earth dust is little more than a nuisance, on the Moon the fine grains of the lunar regolith, created by billions of years of bombardment without any weathering, can become hazardous. Abrasive and adhesive, the dust can damage equipment and even, potentially, become a health hazard.

“I think dust is probably one of the greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the Moon,” Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, said in a post-flight debrief mentioned in the preface of The Impact of Lunar Dust on Human Exploration. “I think we can overcome other physiological or physical or mechanical problems except dust.”

“I think dust is probably one of the greatest inhibitors to a nominal operation on the Moon,” Gene Cernan after Apollo 17.

The book is a summary of a workshop held a year and a half ago on the subject, examining the various issues that the Moon’s fine-grained regolith poses. Dust kicked up by a lunar lander can obscure the view of the surface and interfere with radars and other instruments used for landing. The dust kicked up by a lander can travel extended, sandblasting equipment at any future base and even the lander itself. Coatings of dust can affect radiators, causing equipment to overheat. It can clog mechanisms and degrade seals. Dust can be an irritant on the skin and in the lungs.

The chapters in the book outline our stage of knowledge of these issues—or, more frequently, state of ignorance. Lunar dust hazards received little attention in the decades after Apollo and not much even during Apollo. The workshop’s plenary speaker, Brian O’Brien, fought to get a dust detector experiment on the Apollo missions. (He contributed a chapter to the book about his research and his thoughts on future research; he died last year at the age of 86.) What studies that have been revived by Constellation and, more recently, Artemis, rely on decades-old data or use of lunar simulants, computer modeling, or other substitutes. Scientists, for example, concluded that lunar regolith was as abrasive as commercial sandpaper when in contact with skin by rubbing JSC-1A, a widely used lunar simulant, with pig skin, a “high-fidelity model for human skin.”

The research outlined in the book doesn’t reveal any showstoppers for human lunar exploration: after all, six Apollo missions successfully landed on the Moon and spent up to a few days there. However, the book illustrates the importance of studying the effects of lunar dust on humans and equipment and developing mitigation measures. One chapter discusses research in chemicals that, when applied to surfaces, reduces the ability of lunar dust to adhere to them. For anyone involved in lunar exploration, from supporting Artemis to developing commercial landers, this book offers a detailed review of the hazards posed by lunar dust that they will need to address, one way or another.

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