LifeShip is creating a genetic record of life outside Earth
Deep in a Central American rainforest in late 2018, Ben Haldeman walked until he found a place to sit down, then admired the insects, plants and fungi all around him. He was alone, having left behind the shamans guiding his meditation retreat, and when he saw the biodiversity in front of him, an idea formed. Earth’s life, he thought, cooperates as a system, and it produced humanity with the purpose of spreading the seeds of life outward in the universe.
Almost three years later, Haldeman is the CEO of LifeShip, a company he founded shortly after his retreat to realize his vision. The mission is to collect a record of Earth’s biodiversity, particularly human DNA, stuff it into capsules and send them to the Moon, or, if the business proves commercially viable, to Mars.
“Most of the species that have lived on Earth are now extinct and have disappeared without a trace,” he said. “So what we are doing is saving a record of life today for future generations. “Like Jurassic Park, there is a possibility that we could preserve fractions of life today and bring them back in the future. The other use is to send them out there as a record of Earth, and perhaps they get discovered by another species and could be used to recreate Earth.”
The price to get one person’s DNA on a LifeShip mission is $99.00, and customers can also send their pet’s DNA for the same cost or a loved one’s ashes for $399.00. Currently, the company has collected DNA from about 2,000 humans and 400 other species, according to Haldeman. The first launch, which will contain 1,000 individuals’ DNA, is scheduled for the first quarter of 2022. The capsule will ride aboard a United Launch Alliance rocket and be integrated into the Arch Mission Foundation’s Lunar Library II payload, itself a mission to preserve a record of humanity including the entire English Wikipedia, datasets from the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg.
Haldeman designed the consumer experience to be simple and interactive. When a customer purchases a spot on the flight, a kit with a saliva swab is shipped to their home. They mail back their DNA, which is then turned into a powder, stored in synthetic amber and packed into a capsule along with a story of their life. It gets placed inside a lander, which, after launching into space aboard a rocket, detaches itself and touches down on the Moon, where it remains indefinitely.
All along the way, customers get updates on the progress of the mission, from details about DNA processing to a live launch party and touchdown celebration. At the end, they receive a certificate indicating their location on the Moon.
“I was certain that by the time I was an adult, I would be able to look up into the night sky and see the lights of cities on the moon,” said Mike Westbrook, a retired librarian and self-described “space nut” who sent his DNA to LifeShip. “And if everything fell into place exactly right, maybe I would be able to go myself. Clearly that didn’t happen, but LifeShip has given me the opportunity to send at least a bit of myself into space. I may not be able to go in person, but a tiny part of me can go.”
Marsha Garvey is a retired teacher who has been married for 57 years, and Lifeship is her and her husband’s way of extending their connection beyond Earth.
“My husband, Don, has a very simple reason to board the rocket to the Moon: ME,” she said. “So, being together on the moon is an absolute must for him. However, awaiting discovery by future beings of our universe is a mutual reason for us to participate in the Lifeship project. I know we can’t miss being discovered together!”
LifeShip produces copies of each capsule in case something goes wrong with the launch. If the rocket explodes, for example, the backup capsule would be sent on the next mission free of charge. To assuage concerns about privacy, Haldeman said the company eventually disposes of the copies and does not read or sequence any person’s DNA.
LifeShip’s advertising has primarily targeted the United States, but it aims to expand the geographic diversity of genetic material in its record.
“We do plan in the future to have programs where each purchase helps collect either people from a diverse group, STEM or education,” Haldeman said.
He added that his and his six-year-old daughter Luna’s DNA will be aboard the first rocket next year. Following that, the next launch is scheduled for the first half of 2023, and space is still left for new customers. In August, the company announced that Olympic and Paralympic gold, silver and bronze medalists could send their DNA for free. “We celebrate our world’s best athletes who are pushing the limits of physical and psychological boundaries,” it said.
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