VERMILLION, S.D. -- Ranjit Koodali's research could someday play a role in humans' ability to live on the moon.
But the University of South Dakota chemistry professor's feet are planted firmly on the ground when he considers the enormity of the task scientists are undertaking.
"It's a bit humbling. The goal is quite challenging and daunting," Koodali said. "It's hard for us to really grasp the magnitude of the situation."
In collaboration with the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, S.D., Koodali received a $207,000 grant from NASA to study insulation materials for buildings that would house humans on the moon or Mars. During the next three years, Koodali will be experimenting with aerogels, low-density silica-like materials used for lightweight insulation in factories as well as clothing used by mountain climbers. It's also used as a heat shield for fire protection.
Koodali's task: find a lightweight insulative material that will not break down in the extreme 500-degree temperature swings that take place on the moon. He'll be searching for ways to modify and improve existing aerogels.
"We hope within three years we will have some new signs," Koodali said.
It's hard knowing where the research will lead, Koodali said, and that's the exciting part of being a scientist. All the experimentation may not lead to a solution for the initial goal, but the end result could be a product that has other commercial applications to our day-to-day lives.
"Research can always take us to new goals," Koodali said. "You always unravel something new along the way. Many discoveries are serendipitous in that regard."
As for the ultimate goal of human habitation on the moon or Mars, count Koodali among the believers that it could happen in 20 or 30 years.
"I think it's possible," he said.
Some may think it far-fetched, but Koodali said President John F. Kennedy's declaration that the United States would land a person on the moon in the 1960s also drew its share of skeptics.
"I think many of us would have dismissed him as crazy," Koodali said.