HSW 2008

What is a Lunar Vault?

The idea of the Doomsday Ark is already an established one. A seed vault in Norway, buried deep in a frozen mountainside, houses all the supplies that humanity would need to rebuild a green world in the event the one we already have is wiped out. An underground vault in Britain houses genetic samples that could help rebuild an entire ecosystem. The thing is, though, as highly reinforced as these structures may be, if Earth is wiped out, chances are these vaults won't survive. But a vault on the moon -- that's a different story.

That's the goal of the Alliance to Rescue Civilization: use space technology to save humanity.

The ark would be buried under the lunar surface. Scientists plan to house hard discs containing all of human knowledge recorded in Arabic, English, Chinese, Russian, French and Spanish inside the ark. The idea is to house DNA sequences, technological information, agricultural instructions and possibly even cultural artifacts -- everything that would help survivors create a new world on Earth. Survivors would have access to data about the basis of human life, how to create the metals needed to build cities and how to plant crops in the most efficient and productive ways. It may eventually even hold living organisms that would quite literally help rebuild Earth, including plants and microorganisms. Scientists envision current research in stem-cell technology and cloning to serve as possible repopulation tools if they can be adapted to work in space. The vault might house actual human and animal embryos. As a starting point, scientists with the European Space Agency are experimenting with growing tulips in altered lunar conditions. (Tulips are apparently very hardy.)

A potential system for creating a hospitable atmosphere for life in a lunar vault would essentially be a three-part process: Machines would generate a mix of gasses to create a synthetic replica of Earth's atmosphere, where plants could thrive. Those plants would eventually decompose, releasing carbon dioxide. Algae would absorb that carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, establishing a cycle much like the one that makes up the environment on Earth. If this type of self-sustaining ecosystem worked, it would create a tiny world in which currently Earth-based life could survive until it's needed back on Earth.

But this is a long-term goal that relies on the ability to establish an Earth-like environment in the vault. Scientists would also need to station people on the moon to maintain the vault since the envisioned self-sustaining ecosystem wouldn't last forever without maintenance. That's one of the big glitches in the long-term view of the ark.

A human colony on the moon is a ways off by all accounts. In its initial stages, robotic systems will tend the life and the technology in the vault. However, the initial issue is housing hard discs on the moon and setting up a system that lets people on Earth access their contents.

How will the contents be accessed? On paper, the idea is all very neat and clean: constant radio contact. The ark will be buried deep enough in the lunar surface to be protected from the moon's harsh conditions, but shallow enough to maintain radio contact with Earth. That's how the ark will actually help the few surviving humans rebuild -- by transmitting its valuable data to Earth.

And this is where skeptics are really digging in. How will the survivors of a wiped-out world, without the technology or knowledge to even plant wheat, access radio transmissions from space? We'll find out on the next page.