NASA is preparing to test an inflatable structure that might one day be used to establish an outpost on the Moon.

Created by NASA contractor ILC Dover LP, the pumped-up structure sits poised for tests at the agency's Langley Research Center in Virginia.

"Right now it is a concept demonstrator," said Inflatable Structures Project Leader Karen Whitley. "We use it for publicity and tours and exhibits for senior staff. We've had several congressmen come here to see it."

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The inflatable structure is made of multilayer fabric and looks like an ungainly white robot with legs.

The main unit is 12 feet in diameter and 18 feet tall. It has a volume of about 1,600 cubic feet and is connected to an airlock, also inflatable. The two spaces are essentially pressurized cylinders, connected by an airtight door.

Judith Watson, the Structure Material Mechanism project lead at Langley, said her team is drawing plans to conduct structural tests on the prototype in the coming months.

"We also want to look at logistics: how well this is actually going to package up, how much mass it actually has, how do you arrange the internal parts [to create] sleeping quarters, walls and floors," Watson told SPACE.com. "Those are some of the issues we're going to be tackling in the next year or two."

Inflatable structures are just one of the construction types NASA is considering for an outpost on the Moon.

"There are quite a few different options that they're looking at," Watson said. "They're not restricting themselves to expandable structures."

Whitley says the biggest advantage of expandable structures is they can be compressed into a small volume for launch.

NASA envisions a lunar outpost as being a testing ground in preparation for a longer journey to Mars.

"The idea behind us having an outpost on the Moon is to give us a chance to practice and learn before we go to Mars," Watson said. "The Moon is a lot closer ... We have the ability to try out the technology in a safer environment before we send people on a three plus years mission to Mars, where they have no backup."

NASA says testing of inflatable habitats on the Moon could begin in 2020. As currently envisioned, a lunar outpost would begin with four-person crews making several seven-day visits to the Moon until their power supplies, rovers and living quarters are operational.

The mission would then be extended to two weeks, then two months and ultimately to 180 days.

In a related development, NASA will team up with the National Science Foundation to begin field testing of a similar inflatable structure in Antarctica either later this year or early next year.

NASA faces competition for setting up a lunar outpost from at least one private company. Austin's Stone Aerospace, Inc, in Texas recently announced plans to create a lunar mining station to prospect for frozen water and other resources by 2015.

Another company, Bigelow Aerospace, plans to launch free-floating modules to create an orbital habitat that could support visiting crews of up to three people by the end of the decade.

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