One of the biggest challenges of space travel has very little to do with the traveling itself, and more to do with everything that happens afterward. How will humans sustain themselves if we send them back to the moon (and, as planned, to Mars)? Food, even freeze-dried, is heavy. Water, too. Maintenance is expensive, in every sense of the word. So if manned space travel is to become a long-term reality, we'll need to find ways to cultivate the places and planets we visit: to mine their soil for nutrients, to find the water hidden in their depths, to generate the air that will make everything else possible.
NASA has an idea for doing all that, and it takes the form -- as so many innovative ideas seem to these days -- of a robot.
Meet ... the Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot -- RASSOR, for short. The robot (pronounced as "razor") is an excavator device, designed to extract (yes) water, (yes) ice, and (yes) fuel from the soil of the moon. And from the soil of similarly dusty bodies (like, say, Mars). NASA is envisioning that RASSOR, currently in development in prototype form, will not only perform the Greek-fable-meets-rocket-science-reality task of getting water from rocks; it will also take the remaining dust and convert the chemicals it contains into two things crucial to astronauts: air for breathing, and fuel for moving. "The robot," NASA says, "would be the feeder for a lunar resource processing plant, a level of industry never before tried anywhere besides Earth."