Rebooting Earth from a Lunar Backup System
The Artemis Program of NASA will soon deliver humans back to the Moon. It has been half a century since the last human, Commander Gene Cernan, stepped on the lunar surface during the Apollo 17 mission on December 13, 1972.
Once a lunar base for humans is established, an important priority should be to endow it with a computer system that backs up all the information necessary to reboot life on Earth. This includes the genetic information on all forms of terrestrial life as well as information on all human creations, including books, music and content of the internet. The lunar data repository would serve the same purpose as the backup and recovery system on a “cloud” computing and storage provider that I recently purchased for my new computer. On a clear night, the Moon would appear like the ultimate “cloud” for data storage.
The lunar information backup can be updated routinely through laser communication channels from data transmitters on the surface of Earth. Within decades, the lunar base might still include a small number of people. But if a catastrophe hits Earth, the backup system will enable them to follow a recovery plan.
There are many existential risks for life on Earth, including climate change, a nuclear world-war, pandemics, asteroid impact, the Sun boiling off our oceans and rivers, or an unexpected calamity from a rare astrophysical event like a gamma-ray burst. The likelihood of any of these phenomena wiping out humanity is highly uncertain, but worth a backup and recovery plan.
Of course, rebooting Earth would allow the opportunity of a selective recovery program, in which only positive aspects of our life are reconstructed. Imagine a world without toxicity on Twitter, without negativity in news reports, without an unjustified sentiment of superiority by some groups of people towards others. Imagine a world where all beings are humble and treat each other with respect and cooperating in harmony.
Could we go back to the biblical “Garden of Eden”? Could we enjoy nature left to its own devices, à la Henry Thoreau, without terraforming it?
But our wishes could extend beyond the physical world. Could we reboot a new world where other opinions are respected and evidence is the only measure of success in describing reality, not only in politics but also in academia? Could we imagine scientists seeking knowledge from encounters with extraterrestrial technological gadgets? (Hint: if you cannot imagine the latter, check out the Galileo Project.)
If we can imagine a better world, perhaps we should not be patient enough to wait for a global catastrophe that would extinguish the imperfect environment we live in. We could potentially have the courage and vision to reboot our world on Earth in the near future so that it would resemble the “Garden of Eden” without waiting for hell to dawn on Earth and force us to try again.
But the reason I brought up extraterrestrials is because they might improve our ambition for what might be possible, in the same way that a successful classmate pushed us to perform better at school. In other words, if we notice a better world created by intelligent neighbors in our cosmic neighborhood, we could be inspired to imitate them and benefit from their insights. One of the main reasons I seek a higher intelligence in space is for the benefit of humanity on Earth.
But it is possible that we will not be able to reboot life on Earth without a catastrophe wiping it out, just because of the resistance to behavioral change and the tendency of human history to repeat mistakes of the past. In anticipation of that future, we must maintain a backup and recovery system on the Moon.
If Earth will not be habitable after the catastrophe, we could reboot life on another planet, like Mars in the Solar system or like billions of habitable Earth-like planets around other stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
My hope is that if we roll the dice of humanity billions of times, we might get the “Garden of Eden” on at least one habitable planet in the Milky Way galaxy. Perhaps Earth represents a failed trial by another civilization. This might represent the solution to Enrico Fermi’s question: “where is everybody?” The answer might be that after getting disappointed with their failed attempts on Earth, they are trying it somewhere else. This might resemble the experience of a cook who notices that the cake is deflated and tries mixing and baking the ingredients differently in another container and oven. In this metaphor, the cake is our civilization, the container is a planet and the oven space is the habitable region of the host star. If I had a choice, the planet in which the experiment succeeds is where you’ll find me.
And I am not alone having this thought. Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg already recognized in 1939 the importance of immigrating to a star, as Judy Garland sang their words:
“Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.”
I rest my case.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.