A Lunar Library

As part of Odysseus’ moonfall, Long Now’s work, and the linguistic heritage of all of humanity, will be preserved on the lunar surface.

On Thursday, February 22 at around 3:25 PM Pacific Time, Intuitive Machines made history. Odysseus, their NOVA-C class moon lander, succeeded at becoming the first American-built lander to make moonfall in more than 50 years. 

As Odysseus made its descent to the lunar surface, it carried with it an archive of human cultural knowledge – a Lunar Library, designed by the Arch Mission Foundation. Within that library is the data from The Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Project, our long-term archive of world languages. Now, as part of Odysseus’ moonfall, our work, and the linguistic heritage of all of humanity, will be preserved on the lunar surface. 

Odysseus’ landing – and the deposition of the Rosetta Project’s data on the Moon – was a long time coming. In the 51 years since the astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission left the moon, five different countries have attempted “soft landings” (that is, landings that do not significantly damage the lander or its payload) on the moon, with the Soviet Union, China, India, and most recently Japan succeeding in these efforts. 

Yet the history of moon landings over the past half century has been a pockmarked one, riddled with failed attempts and “hard landings” – intentional or semi-intentional crashes of landers into the moon surface. Just earlier this year, another privately funded mission to the moon failed in its goals, with Astrobotic’s Peregrine Lander burning up above the Pacific Ocean on January 18 while re-entering Earth’s orbit after a propellant leak made a successful moonfall impossible. Thanks to Arch Mission, Rosetta Project data was aboard that lander too.

The success of Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 mission – the product of more than a decade of work stretching back to the company’s founding in 02013 – not only represents a return to the moon for the U.S. but the potential beginning of a wave of commercial moon landings. We spoke to Nova Spivack, co-founder of Arch Mission, about the milestone and the hard work of designing archives that can last – whether on the Moon or closer to home.

Long Now first partnered with Arch Mission in 02018 to contribute our long-term records of world languages to their Lunar Library project, which aims to create a long-lasting offworld archive of human knowledge. Spivack said that Arch Mission aimed to build its archives through a philosophy of “curate the curators,” focusing less on making individual decisions about works or documents to be archived and more on finding “well-respected curated collections by others where there's been a lot of effort put into them.” He pointed to Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and Long Now’s own collections as examples of collections that help build “cross-sectional view of human civilization that's not particularly biased towards just Western civilization.”

The Rosetta Project’s resources are especially important to Arch Mission’s archival work due to their capacity to serve as a tool for deciphering the rest of the library. Spivack sees the structure of the information in the library as a “staircase of knowledge,” beginning with a pictographic primer of basic concepts required to access information and building to the full encoded collections of the archive. The microscopic language archives of the Rosetta Project represent, to Spivack, a “very important codex”: they are readable merely through magnification, providing any necessary translation of instructions for unlocking the rest of the library’s information. Without them, Spivack said, “there's a risk that the archive wouldn't make sense to somebody in the future.”

The first Lunar Library contained archives consisting of 4 analog layers equivalent to more than 20,000 pages, as well as 200 gigabytes worth of digital information, packed into a disc roughly the size of a DVD. That archive also included Rosetta Project and Panlex data. The library impacted the Moon in 02019, as part of SpaceIL’s Beresheet mission. That Israeli-led mission aimed for a soft landing on the Mare Serenitatis, but after a set of technical malfunctions it crashed into the Moon’s surface at more than 3,000 km/h. Despite the destruction of the spacecraft, Spivack asserts that “it’s very likely that [the Lunar Library is] intact somewhere there” due to its protective layering, including a layer of resin with DNA embedded in it.

We know that the Lunar Library that accompanied Odysseus to the lunar surface, officially called the Galactic Legacy Archive, arrived intact. It will remain in place at the Malapert A crater, 300 kilometers from the Lunar South Pole, for the foreseeable future. In addition to our language archives, the Galactic Legacy Archive contains the SETI Institute’s Earthling Project, the Arch Mission Private Library, David Copperfield’s Magic secrets, the Arch Lunar Art Archive, and a number of digitized archival recordings by popular musicians

The Rosetta Project data now on the moon joins a Rosetta Disk on Comet 67P. That disk became the first off-world archive of thousands of human languages after being launched into space as part of the payload of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe in 02004. That probe and its Philae lander arrived at Comet 67P in 02014, with the disc landing on the comet’s surface alongside the lander.

Odysseus won’t be the only spacecraft with a linguistic archive on it departing Earth this year. In October, NASA plans to launch Europa Clipper, a space probe that will perform flybys of Europe, Jupiter’s ocean moon. Fittingly, the probe features a plate engraved with visual depictions of the audio waveforms for the word water in 103 different languages and a representation of the corresponding American Sign Language symbol. The “Water Words” project was developed with the help of a team of linguists including Long Now’s former Director of Operations Dr. Laura Buszard-Welcher, who spearheaded our efforts in language preservation and documentation during her nearly two decades with Long Now.

The Europa Clipper’s “Water Words” Plate. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech

From Spivack’s point of view, having many different archives is key to “a distributed backup strategy which has redundancy across many locations so that no one person or party is likely to be able to find or control all of the locations.” Arch Mission’s plans included not just future Lunar Libraries but archives on Earth, as well, with Spivack noting the foundation’s plans for “Global Knowledge Vault” in the Hagerbach Underground Research Laboratory in Switzerland. This philosophy matches closely with the archival principle of “Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe” — that many distributed copies are preferable to singular stores of information.

Between the diversity of archive locations selected by Arch Mission and the intentional creation of “staircases of knowledge” within the archives, Arch Mission’s plans represent a compelling effort towards long-term archiving. In talking with Spivack, he discussed use of the archives over the course of the long arc of history — both as an “immutable record” usable by future historians to accurately study the culture of our time and as a way to reconstruct a basic record of civilization after an “extinction level event.” Spivack also noted another critical impact of Arch Mission’s work: inspiring people to think more concretely about the long-term future. To Spivack, contributing to the design and curation of the Lunar Libraries is an “experience of deep time.” He highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of Arch Mission’s work and how the project has brought together experts working in fields like design, archival science, aerospace, and even biology to think deeply about how to create archives that last over a “timescale that's almost impossible to imagine.”

This Lunar Library brings us a small step closer to making that giant leap of imagination.

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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