Could a Lunar Gene Bank Save Our Species?

Imagine if an asteroid plunged into Earth, killing all life in a giant fireball, or hostile aliens from a far-away planet launched an invasion and wiped out all life on our planet? Or what if a mutant, deadly plague spread from person to person and animal to animal and caused a vast extinction?

OK, none of these things is terribly likely to happen. But -- what if?

Some have decided it's time to start preparing for the absolute worst. Earthlings need a lifeboat, they say, and our best option could be our closest neighbor -- the moon.

"No one likes to think his house will burn down tomorrow, but most people get property insurance anyway," said Bill Burrows, a science journalism professor at New York University and member of The Alliance to Rescue Civilization, a group set up in 1999 with human survival in mind. "That's what this is -- it's like establishing a planetary hard drive."

Civilization in a Freezer

To get an idea of what the Alliance to Rescue Civilization has in mind, consider its acronym -- ARC. The concept is to establish a genetic Noah's Ark of sorts or a protected stash of genomes from Earth's wide array of species and individuals. The concept is somewhat similar to the Frozen Zoo project, based at the San Diego Zoo, and the London-based Frozen Ark, where researchers collect genetic material from rare and threatened animal species and store it in liquid nitrogen for future research.

The difference is this genetic library could one day be used to revive the human species. And it's not just the Alliance to Rescue Civilization that has pondered such a moon-based bank. Bernard Foing, chief scientist with the European Space Agency, said it's an idea that his agency has discussed for some time.

"If all species disappear on Earth, I think it's our responsibility to help save them," Foing said. "We have to prepare for catastrophe."

Of course, Burrows and Foing are the first to admit that such a plan is probably decades away and much needs to happen before any such project becomes even remotely possible. Still, every journey and project begins with a single step, and that, said Foing, is where the Smart-1 orbiter comes into play.

Prospecting for a Lunar Base

ESA's Smart-1 spacecraft recently settled into orbit around the moon and is now recording detailed images of the moon's surface. The mission is designed to find prime real estate for a possible future moon habitat. Following Europe's program, the United States, Japan and possibly China all plan to launch their own scouting probes to map the moon's surface. Once potentially accommodating locations are found, Foing said robots could be sent to begin building human habitats by the year 2020.

Eventually, he envisions an international village of intelligent, remotely controlled robots that would work together to prepare for human habitation. ESA's program is designed to complement President Bush's Moon, Mars and Beyond plan, in which humans would travel to the moon and then onward to Mars.

"Each country can contribute a robot, each with a different ability," Foing explained. "When you put out a crew, they can cover a wider range of tasks. Then when humans come, they can serve as slaves or companions."

Once the robots set up camp, humans would follow and that's when they could begin building a lunar-based gene bank. With a super-freezing facility in place, space travelers could begin filling it with cells and tissues from a diverse range of individuals.

Burrows and his colleague, Steven Wolfe, a biochemist at New York University and a founding member of The Alliance to Rescue Civilization, are less warm to the idea of using a robotic village to set up shop. Instead, they advocate sending people first.

A New Space Race for Survival

"Why send robots ahead of people to build something that people can build themselves?" said Burrows, who has a book on the topic coming out this year called "The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth."

Either way, saving the human race is a noble goal and one that, some argue, could offer a fresh mandate to U.S. and private space programs.

NASA has struggled to match the headiness of the 1960s when President Kennedy challenged scientists to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The Cold War fueled that challenge, but that competitive global race has since faded.

"Now that the Cold War is over, NASA needs a new goal," Burrow said. "Our mandate should be to put our record on the moon, to spread out -- that way we are protected in case anything happens."