For the last four months, Nova Spivack has been busting with a cosmic secret he couldn’t tell the world. And even if he did, he knew it would sound implausibly Star Wars-esque.
He had put tiny eight-legged creatures in suspended animation in epoxy, “like the way Jabba the Hutt had Han Solo,” Spivack says. And just like Han Solo, Spivack had literally smuggled the creatures to another celestial object — in his case, Earth’s own moon — while avoiding any bureaucratic entanglements.
Spivack is an early internet entrepreneur (he worked on Siri before it was sold to Apple) and co-founder of the Arch Mission Foundation. That nonprofit constructed a library of books and encyclopedias containing 30 million pages laser-etched onto microscopic nickel plates, complete with a primer on how to read them. The idea is that the library can be sent into space so there’s a permanent record of Earth culture even if we destroy ourselves. With hundreds of human DNA samples also on board, the library could theoretically be used to restart the human race.
Having sent a small test library in Elon Musk’s spacebound Tesla Roadster, Spivack booked passage for the full version on the Beresheet mission, an attempt by Israeli company SpaceIL to put the first private lander on the moon. At the last minute, Spivack and his co-founder realized they could send more than just human DNA.
They decided to add actual tardigrades — super-tough microscopic creatures, also known as “water bears”, that can be dehydrated and revived at least a decade later — to the resin that sealed the library’s container.
That much was revealed in a Wired story this week. But here’s what we didn’t know: Spivack hadn’t informed the Israeli company about the creatures that he had added to the payload.
“We didn’t tell them we were putting life in this thing,” he says. “Space agencies don’t like last-minute changes. So we just decided to take the risk … we did it in a way where there would be absolutely no risk of any contamination outside of our payload, which was sealed and in a vacuum.”
When I suggested that this made him the first smuggler in space, Spivack responded: “Technically, I’m the first space pirate.” He added that his friends have coined another analogy for a project that delivered the first ever nonhuman Earth creatures to the moon: “Nova’s ark.”
Spivack was planning to announce the arrival of the tardigrades after the Beresheet landed in April, effectively asking forgiveness rather than permission. Trouble was, the Beresheet didn’t so much land as … crash. But it did so with minimal force. Having studied the trajectory, speed and other data from SpaceIL, Spivack and a volunteer team of space experts have concluded that the library — which is light, mylar-covered and pretty impact-resistant — is likely intact.
In other words, to quote Lando Calrissian: the tardigrades are “alive, and in perfect hibernation.”
But Spivack felt wrong telling anyone that while SpaceIL mourned the loss of its lander. (We’ve reached out to SpaceIL for comment; the company has recently decided to abandon a follow-up lunar lander mission and will work on a mysterious undisclosed project instead, claiming that “the moon is not enough of a challenge.”)
Then the Apollo 11 50th anniversary came along, and Spivack didn’t want to step on that story either. In fact, we might never know about the existence of the lunar tardigrades if the Wired reporter had not happened to be doing a piece on Spivack for their college alumni magazine. Spivack couldn’t resist casually dropping in the tardigrade part of the story.
In fact, we still don’t have the full story on the space library that crash-landed on the moon. Spivack admits he is still withholding information on the contents of other “vaults” within the tiny space library. None contain forms of life, he hastens to point out. Some are up to various individuals to reveal, as magician David Copperfield did when he said the secrets to all his tricks were in the library. But some of them, Spivack could reveal now if he wanted.
“There’s music, there’s documents we haven’t disclosed, there are all sorts of things we haven’t disclosed yet,” Spivack says. “There are secrets within secrets.”
Asked why he was still withholding details, Spivack had a one-word answer: “Fun.”
That’s certainly one way to spark more interest in space, an area which is in dire need of inspirational pizzazz, at least in the west. (A recent study revealed that kids in the US and UK would rather be YouTubers, athletes or musicians than astronauts when they grow up; in China, kids answered the opposite way.)
Is it NASA-sanctioned fun, however? The space agency sounded a note of caution. “Uncontrolled biological contamination of the Moon’s surface is not scientifically ideal,” says Dr. Lisa Pratt, an astrobiologist and NASA’s new Planetary Protection Officer, in a written statement — even though we know the moon to be 100 percent dead. (It would be a different story if Spivack had smuggled tardigrades to Mars, as he himself admits.)
However, says Pratt, this case “is no more or less of a problem than biological waste left behind during Apollo landed missions.” She means the 90-plus bags of astronaut poop left on the moon’s surface rather than carried back to Earth, which effectively left millions of microbes as lunar ambassadors. They have all long since been destroyed by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. (Tardigrades, incredibly, have evolved a unique radiation shield.)
So will those smuggled water bears ever be revived, Han Solo-style, from their epoxy sleep on the moon? Will “Return of the Tardigrade” ever hit theaters?
Well, there are a number of lunar missions that are supposed to touch down relatively nearby within the next ten years. China, India, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and of course NASA itself are all planning crewed missions in the 2020s. But “they would have to pore through 100 square kilometers of lunar dust” at the crash site, Spivack points out, if they wanted to retrieve them. And lunar dust is no joke when it comes to finding its way into equipment and space suits.
Far more likely, he says, that a more dust-free version of the library and its tardigrade guardians will have touched down by then — no smuggling required this time. The Arch Mission Foundation has inked a deal with Astrobotic, a NASA-funded firm that intends to deliver a lander to the moon’s surface in 2020.
This version will include a lot more genetic material. Not only has Spivack and co figured out how to encode Wikipedia in a vial of DNA, not only are they adding the DNA of endangered species, but Spivack is also soliciting samples from human volunteers — via a Kickstarter donation, of course. (The Kickstarter will launch this fall.)
Because a true Han Solo always has debts to pay.