Paying US $99 for a trip to the moon sounds like quite the bargain. But before you sign up, be aware that it’s likely to be a one-way trip, without life support, water, or even air. In fact, you can leave your whole body at home, because the passengers will be strictly molecular.
“DNA is the smallest payload you can imagine and yet the most important in many ways,” says Ben Haldeman, LifeShip’s founder and a veteran of earth observation company Planet Labs. “You provide a saliva sample and then we take your DNA, your source code, and preserve it up in space for eternity.”
LifeShip intends to store its customers’ DNA inside a synthetic “artificial amber” first used by the Arch Mission Foundation for an ill-fated lunar mission earlier this year. Arch Mission (pronounced ‘ark’ as in ‘archive’) is a nonprofit organization aiming to create multiple redundant repositories of human knowledge around the solar system.
In March, a SpaceX rocket launched an Israeli spaceship carrying Arch Mission’s Lunar Library, a 30 million-page analog and digital archive of human history and civilization cleverly squeezed onto a stack of small nickel discs.
At the last minute, Arch Mission engineers added a drop of epoxy resin containing 100 million cells from 25 humans and other organisms, as well as thousands of tardigrades—resilient water-dwelling micro-animals famed for their ability to withstand extreme temperatures, radiation, and even the vacuum of space.
While the lunar lander malfunctioned and crashed into the moon at over 500 kph (300 mph) in April, the capsule containing the Lunar Library is believed to have survived, provoking a brief controversy about whether the tardigrades could somehow contaminate the moon (they can’t).
Haldeman insists that sending human DNA to our nearest celestial neighbor is even less risky, both to the moon and to the DNA itself.
“DNA is not living,” he notes. “A lot of degradation of DNA in space is when radiation hits a water molecule, which then gets excited and damages the DNA. We’ll store the DNA dry, and will have many thousands of copies of each person’s DNA. If radiation breaks up some of them, there still should be redundancy.”
The DNA will be embedded in Arch Mission’s synthetic amber, likely between layers of its knowledge archives on future commercial moon missions. Some DNA sequences from insects and plants trapped in tree amber for tens of millions of years have been recovered, although many scientists are skeptical that DNA can be reliably decoded after so long.
“We can’t guarantee a million years on the moon but it should be up there for a while,” says Haldeman. “It’s about archiving life and saving for the future but also the wonder of traveling into space and what could happen with this DNA in the future.”[shortcode ieee-pullquote quote=""We can't guarantee a million years on the moon but it should be up there for a while."" float="left" expand=1]
Nova Spivack, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist behind Arch Mission, told Spectrum that the current formulation of its “artificial amber” is simply slow-cure epoxy resin, and that its longevity had not been tested. “Nobody knows how long DNA would survive on the moon in this encapsulation,” he admits. “The main issues are heat and radiation. To protect against those would require shielding. We have not selected a form of shielding yet but we are researching it.”
Haldeman hopes to make LifeShip’s lunar DNA backup available to consumers this fall, initially through a Kickstarter campaign offering home DNA collection kits for $99. Traveling to the moon alongside the human cargo will be DNA of endangered animals, rare plants, and important food crops, provided by Arch Mission as part of its planetary backup strategy. Within the next couple of years, LifeShip expects to be able to hitch a ride to the moon about every six months.
“People will be able to look up at the moon and feel a connection with all life, and that they’re part of the big story of the Earth,” says Haldeman. “It’s possible that life on Earth started from something being sent here, either intentionally or knocked off another planet. Maybe we’re at the stage now of planting our own seeds of life to move out in the universe.”
Or maybe it’s just another lunatic scheme in a year of grandiose projects. At the very least, transporting wisps of DNA to the moon sounds more affordable and realistic than U.S. President Donald Trump’s goal of returning living, breathing astronauts there within the next five years.
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.