What's Your Moonshot? One Man's Quest for a Billion Year Archive Stored in the Solar System

Moonshot_Nova Spivak
Illustration by Alex Fine

Fifty years ago Apollo 11 shot for the moon. To mark that anniversary Newsweek is spotlighting current pioneers in science and technology pursuing goals almost as ambitious.

Nova Spivack's dreams are the stuff of science fiction but he's serious about making them real. Spivack, a successful tech entrepreneur, is chairman of the Arch Mission Foundation—Arch pronounced as in "archive." It is a nonprofit whose goal is to "back up" all of mankind's knowledge in miniature form using techniques like etching data on durable substances like nickel and then storing those records in places where they will be safe for a long time. Like the bottom of the ocean. Or the Moon.

Why do this? All of the artistic and scientific achievements and history of the human race today exist either in plastic or on paper. We've got to find a better way to protect and preserve this. There's the biological heritage as well—billions of years of evolution yielding diverse life forms. If anything bad were to happen on Earth, all of that would be wiped out forever.

How are you going to protect all that information? We have a strategy called the Billion Year Archive initiative, putting archives in thousands of locations, including caves in the deepest places underground and in deep ocean locations that would likely be explored by intelligent inhabitants of our planet in the distant future. We want these to help teach them what we know and to save them from making the same mistakes we made.

How can you ensure that whoever might find these archives
will understand them? We can provide knowledge to them visually. We start by teaching them millions of things we take for granted. We teach all of that using diagrams and pictures. We then provide a linguistic key to every language known to humanity and, from there, a vast library of everything we know etched on a tiny scale, so it can be seen with a microscope but without a computer. Within that, we teach how to make a computer, which itself brings much larger amounts of information in digital form.

Where have you put these so far and what's next? Our first mission was with Elon Musk and SpaceX. We sent a test data set written into a quartz crystal in the glove compartment of the Tesla Roadster now orbiting the sun. It'll be there for about 30 million years. That contained the Isaac Asimov Foundation trilogy, kind of an homage to Asimov, who came up with the idea to back up civilization in that series. We also put an archive of Wikipedia into low-earth orbit in a Chinese rocket; and other information into the Parker Solar Probe, which is orbiting the sun. Also, the Lunar Library was a huge effort. [The Israeli SpaceIL Beresheet lander that recently crashed on the moon, carried an archive disc about the size of a DVD]. We have four more moon landings scheduled, and we plan to send a satellite to what is called the Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon, where if you put something, it just stays because gravity is sort of equalized. That location will also include a node in the interplanetary internet.

Interplanetary internet? The idea is to build out an internet between the Earth, Moon and Mars to enable information to be synchronized between these locations. Imagine some future point where there was a Mars colony. If something happened that caused them to lose their connection to Earth for a long period of time, they would need a local backup.

Where did the inspiration for this come from? Space has been woven into my life since birth. I was born about a month before the Apollo moon landing. And my parents gave me a space name. My mother tells me that she watched the moon landing while nursing me. I went to a shuttle launch as a kid. As a child I had a big dream—literally, a dream at night—where I saw us building archives around the solar system.

What are the biggest obstacles you've faced? Getting mass into space is expensive. We want to send the whole internet, but it's a huge amount of data. We've come up with some technologies that can really reduce the mass, including nickel nanofiche and quartz technology. We're also working on molecular storage in DNA itself and how to make it durable enough to survive in radiation and heat and other harsh conditions. We need to remind people that we have a common world heritage, and that it's precious and we're all a part of it. We have a deep appreciation and respect for every culture, every belief system, every tradition. When you look at Earth from space, all the differences have disappeared. What you see is what binds us together.