Sun, Aug 13, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Life after doomsday

The Alliance to Rescue Civilization wants to create a Moon-based depository of DNA samples just in case someone presses the button and destroys the Earth, or an asteroid wipes out the planet

By Richard Morgan  /  NY TIMES SERVICE , NEW YORK

A rendering of a proposal by NASA for the developement of a permanent lunar base that the Alliance to Rescue Civilzation plans to adapt to serve as a storage and protection center for the DNA of life on earth, and a compendium of human knowledge. Depicted are astronauts exercising, a base operations center, a pressurized lunar rover, a small clean room, a fully equipped life sciences lab, a lunar lander, selenological work, hydroponic gardens, a wardroom, private crew quarters, dust-removing devices for lunar surface work and an airlock.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When the dust settles after World War III, or World War IX, humanity will still want to grow pineapples, rice, coffee and other crops. That is why in June on the island of Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic, all five Scandinavian prime ministers met to break ground on a US$4.8-million “doomsday vault” that will stockpile crop seeds in case of global catastrophe.

While it boasts the extra safety of Arctic temperatures, the seed bank is just the latest life-preservation plan to reach reality, joining genetic banks like the Frozen Ark, a British program that is storing DNA samples from endangered species like the scimitar-horned oryx, the Seychelles Fregate beetle and the British field cricket.

To a certain group preoccupied with doomsday, these projects are laudable but share a deep flaw: They are Earth-bound. A global catastrophe — like a collision with an asteroid or a nuclear winter — would have to be rather tame in order not to rattle the test tubes in the various ark-style labs around the world. What kind of feeble doomsday would leave London safe and sound?

Cue the Alliance to Rescue Civilization, a group that advocates a backup for humanity by way of a station on the Moon replete with DNA samples of all life on Earth, as well as a compendium of all human knowledge — the ultimate detached garage for a race of packrats. It would be run by people who, through fertility treatments and frozen human eggs and sperm, could serve as a new Adam and Eve in addition to their role as a new Noah.

Far from the lunatic fringe, the leaders of the alliance have serious careers: Robert Shapiro, the group’s founder, is a professor emeritus and senior research scientist in biochemistry at New York University; Ray Erikson runs an aerospace development firm in Boston and has been a NASA committee chair; Steven Wolfe, as a congressional aide, drafted and helped pass the Space Settlement Act of 1988, which mandated that NASA plan a shift from space exploration to space colonization, and was executive director of the Congressional Space Caucus; William E. Burrows, an author of several books on space, is the director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU.

US President George W. Bush has already proposed a Moon base. “He just needs to be told what it’s good for,” Shapiro said. Shapiro has written a number of books on the origins of life on Earth, as well as Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth, where he unveiled the civilization rescue project.

In 1999, the same year the book came out, Shapiro wrote an essay with Burrows for Ad Astra, an astronomy journal. There, they formally laid out their plan for the rescue alliance, beginning by warning that “the most enduring pictures to come back from the Apollo missions were not of astronauts cavorting on the Sea of Tranquility, nor even of the lunar landscape itself.”

“They were the haunting views of Earth, seen for the first time not as a boundless and resilient colossus of land and water,” they continued, “but as a startlingly vulnerable lifeboat precariously plying a vast and dangerous sea: a ‘blue marble’ in a black void.” A conversation shortly after the essay was published, Shapiro recalled, resounded with the earnest imagination of science fiction drama:

Shapiro: “We’ve got to use space to protect humanity!”

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