In the event of an emergency...store blueprints on the moon

Ed Caesar speaks to the man on a mission to store the blueprints for life - on the moon
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The Independent Online

On 21 July 1969, we made one giant leap. Man walked on the moon, and, as one, America and the world rejoiced. But, since then, what purpose the moon? We know we can get there and what it looks like, but short of practising our long irons on the most expensive golf range in the galaxy, why would we want to go back?

William Burrows knows why: to save mankind. Burrows is the spokesman for the elegantly named Alliance to Rescue Civilization (ARC), a body of American scientists and thinkers who think the moon is humanity's ultimate insurance policy. For the ARC, it represents a chance to save a back-up of the blueprint for life on Earth and, in the event of disaster, a few people, too. But is he for real, or is he just another science-fiction nutter?

"Well, I can't vouch for that," says Burrows at his research centre in Stamford, Connecticut. "In fact, at an airforce base in Omaha, someone asked me whether I wrote fiction or non-fiction. I said, 'That depends on who you ask.'"

Despite this self-deprecating manner, Burrows is something of an authority on the subject. Now professor of journalism and mass communication at New York University, Burrows's early training was as an aviation and space reporter for The New York Times. From there, he developed into one of the country's leading space writers. In 1986, his book Deep Black caused a sensation when it exposed America's spy satellite programme. And, in 1999, his history of the first space age, This New Ocean, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and has since become the subject's standard work.

In 1999, Burrows and Robert Shapiro, a professor emeritus and senior research scientist in biochemistry at New York University, wrote an essay for Ad Astra, an astronomy journal, which contained the bones of their idea that humanity needs to save a copy of itself to survive. The Alliance to Rescue Civilization was born. Since then, Shapiro and Burrows have been joined at the ARC by Ray Erikson, who has worked for Nasa and runs an aerospace firm in Boston, and Steven Wolfe, a Congressional aide who helped pass the Space Settlement Act of 1988. So what is their proposition, exactly? "The first thing we talked about was the need to back-up our planet, off-planet," says Burrows.

What that would involve, says Burrows, is creating a secure lunar colony, where a huge computer hard-drive could sit, containing a complete record of our planet. That hard drive would have to contain an "infinitely adaptable software system", so that the information could be read in perpetuity. But what should be on the hard-drive?

"Everything," says Burrows. "It is a historical record, it is a civilisation record, it is cultural, it is scientific, it is DNA, it's all of it. Everything is in it. The good, the bad, the ugly, sparing absolutely nothing."

So who will decide what eventuallygoes up there?

"It's a good question," says Burrows. "It would be an international committee. But the mandate is 'everything that is of reasonable importance goes up there'. I leave it to them to decide exactly what [is saved], and I wouldn't like to anticipate that."

It is worth noting, at this point, that the ARC is not the only group currently considering its options for backing-up the planet's DNA. In June this year, for example, the five prime ministers from the Nordic countries met to discuss a "doomsday vault", to store crop seeds in case of catastrophe. Meanwhile, a British group called the Frozen Ark is compiling a genetic bank of DNA samples of endangered species - although what use a few rare beetles will be after a nuclear winter is a moot point.

Both these storage solutions are hampered, says the ARC, by their reliance on Earth. The same crisis - be it nuclear war or environmental catastrophe - that could render these sites supremely useful could also destroy them. Hence, the ARC wants an off-planet hard drive. And their preference for that site is, at present, the moon. "I would say the moon is our best option," says Burrows. "Secondarily, we might be able to use a large space station. But, in no case could we use Mars."

Why?

"The moon is a lot more accessible. It's only four days away. So you could get people out of there fairly quickly. Conversely, if something horrible happens here, we could get people to the moon pretty fast. I'm all for going to Mars eventually, but it's not the place to start. What we would do is go to the moon and learn from our mistakes."

The second and, perhaps, most ambitious part of the ARC's plan is to colonise the moon with a fledgling human population, too.

"After we first discussed this, I started to think - why confine this to a storage site on the moon? Why not spread the seed and protect ourselves and get people up there? Our rationale for going to the moon is to spread the population out, so in case something bad happens, you've hedged your bet."

As pie-in-the-sky as this plan sounds, Burrows' idea was mirrored in June by Professor Stephen Hawking, who told an audience in Hong Kong that "it is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species". But how is this grand aim to be achieved? Are there studies that prove that a functioning lunar base, peopled by brave adventurers, could nourish itself?

"Oh God, yes," says Burrows. "There are studies upon studies upon studies. And some of those studies are very old. There was a German gentleman called Peter Eckhart who wrote one of the most convincing papers. Nasa has plans for a moon base and, as far back as the 1950s, the Air Force and the Army had plans to build a base. It's not a question of it not being possible, it's a question of having the will to do it. It is feasible, but it would be very, very expensive."

How expensive?

"I don't think it's even worth talking about," says Burrows, laughing. "I can't give you a ballpark figure. It doesn't exist. It is many billions, many trillions of dollars. It doesn't matter. It's not a number you can come to grips with. With that said, when you think about the war in Iraq - a colossal waste of money, which has turned the budget surplus into the biggest deficit [the US] has ever had - it's a question of where you want to put your priorities."

Undaunted, Burrows and his colleagues are seeking to raise seed funding from philanthropic organisations when they convene a conference this autumn. But when the sums of money involved are, in Burrows' own words, "silly", what's the point of even starting? And with urgent humanitarian crises crying out for investment, why should charitable bodies pledge anything to a project that may not ever achieve lift-off?

"It's the same argument we have always had about space," says Burrows. "In the late 1960s, I went to London to interview [the economic historian] Arnold Toynbee, who told me that space exploration 'was another Versailles. Why do we need this bauble?' And many people still feel that way. They say, 'Why go into space, when there are people starving in the world?' But I would say this: there's enough money to do both. Science should not be fighting science. You can feed people, you can work on stem-cell research, you can work on AIDS, and you can make this moon thing work, too.

"It's intensely rational for us to go up there. I'm not a pessimist, I'm not an optimist. I'm a realist. Nothing lasts forever. I was recently attacked by a scientist in Arizona, who said we were absolutely crazy to give up Earth to go to the moon. Let me say this: no one is talking about giving up Earth. This is the home planet, this is our source of nurture. But, as Shapiro says, no skipper goes to sea without a lifeboat."

Schemes to rebuild our world

Alliance to Rescue Civilisation

The American-based ARC proposes building a moon colony where a "hard drive" of human existence will be stored in case of catastrophe on Earth. Some humans will also be encouraged to live in the colony.

The Frozen Ark

A tissue bank of stored genetic material from thousands of endangered animals is being developed by this British institute. The Frozen Ark may allow future clones of extinct species, such as pandas, to be resurrected.

The Barcoding of Life

This project set out last year with the intention of taking a genetic "barcode" of every animal and plant that exists on Earth - that's 10 million species in all. Less than a fifth of those species currently have names, but the Barcoding project hopes to name the remaining 8 million or so by the time it finishes the project in 2010.

The Seed Bank

The Nordic countries have combined to support Norway's proposed Seed Bank, a "Doomsday Vault" where a collection of vital seeds will be kept in case of a global catastrophe. The Seed Bank will be hidden deep inside a hollowed-out cave on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, and will be able to withstand a nuclear disaster.

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