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    An artist's conception shows astronauts walking up to an early lunar habitat. The actual habitat, due for deployment in the 2020s, may be made of inflatable material and covered with moon dirt.

    Imagine a world where microwave-beaming rovers cook dust into concrete landing pads ... where your living quarters are dropped onto the land from above, then inflated like an inner tube ... where the grit is so abrasive that even the robots have to wear protective coveralls.
    It may sound like science fiction, but these are actually some of the ideas being floated as part of NASA's plan to build a permanent moon base starting in 2010. To follow through on those sky-high ideas, the space agency is turning to some down-to-earth experts, ranging from polar researchers to miners and earth-movers.

    "We will be looking outside the agency quite a bit as well as inside the agency," said Larry Toups, habitation systems lead for NASA's Constellation Program Office. "We have a lot of folks here who are very innovative and understand the space environment quite a bit, but you do have a lot of expertise outside NASA as well, and we intend to involve those folks."

    Those folks include the twin giants of America's space industry, The Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin. But some less conventional players are involved as well:
    Illinois-based Caterpillar and allied companies have been advising NASA on the dynamics of dirt and the challenges of moving heavy equipment over the lunar surface.
    Canada-based Norcat and Electric Vehicle Controllers are working together to develop a drill suitable for mining on the moon. Norcat is traditionally better-known for its industrial safety training programs, but this June the company is sponsoring a planetary mining conference, with the moon in its sights.

    Delaware-based ILC Dover, which manufactures components for NASA's spacewalk suits as well as the airbags used by NASA's Mars rovers, is branching out to develop inflatable prototypes for lunar habitats. Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace may offer its own inflatable modules for future moon outposts.

    The National Science Foundation is working with NASA and ILC Dover to build and deploy an inflatable test habitat in Antarctica later this year.
    NASA announced the broad outlines of its plan for an eventual lunar outpost less than two months ago. The general idea is to set up shop on the rim of a crater near one of the moon's poles. Such areas would be in sunlight, with a line-of-sight link to Earth all year round. The first crews would stay for just a week at a time, but by 2025, six-month tours of duty would be the norm.

    The polar outpost would serve as NASA's base for lunar research and a test bed for Mars exploration. Some have even grander plans, envisioning the moon as an eventual platform for luxury hotels, astronomical observatories and helium-3 mining operations. The idea of a permanent platform is what distinguishes the future effort from NASA's previous moon program, said Dallas Bienhoff, manager for in-space and surface systems at Boeing Space Exploration.

    "Just getting there and getting home was a big deal for Apollo," he told MSNBC.com. "We know we can do that, even though we haven't done it in 30-plus years. What we want to do is prepare the beachhead for people other than NASA. Basically, the intent is to lay down the foundation for a permanent presence on the moon by whoever wants to be there."

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