io9 picked up on a research paper entitled Toxicity of Lunar Dust, which outlines the health risks of exposure to the dust and regolith found on the lunar surface. The paper makes many references to the Apollo missions and the negative health effects reported by the astronauts involved. It stresses the need for new manned missions to the Moon, but also makes clear the risk that dust posses towards astronauts and their equipment.
The formation, composition and physical properties of lunar dust are incompletely characterised with regard to human health. While the physical and chemical determinants of dust toxicity for materials such as asbestos, quartz, volcanic ashes and urban particulate matter have been the focus of substantial research efforts, lunar dust properties, and therefore lunar dust toxicity may differ substantially. In this contribution, past and ongoing work on dust toxicity is reviewed, and major knowledge gaps that prevent an accurate assessment of lunar dust toxicity are identified. Finally, a range of studies using ground-based, low-gravity, and in situ measurements is recommended to address the identified knowledge gaps. Because none of the curated lunar samples exist in a pristine state that preserves the surface reactive chemical aspects thought to be present on the lunar surface, studies using this material carry with them considerable uncertainty in terms of fidelity. As a consequence, in situ data on lunar dust properties will be required to provide ground truth for ground-based studies quantifying the toxicity of dust exposure and the associated health risks during future manned lunar missions.
Science fiction often uses the vacuum of space as the de facto risk associated with space travel, which has been proven to be much less violent than Hollywood has portrayed it. Lunar dust (and dust from other planetary bodies) may prove to be a more challenging danger that must be taken in to consideration prior to any manned missions back to the Moon (and probably Mars as well).