The Strange, Sad Case of Biosphere 2 in Tucson

January 14th, 2015 · No Comments

by Jane St. Clair

Biosphere 2 sets on the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Arizona, as something that does not belong there. It’s as big as two football fields and looks as if it landed from outer space. Space aliens who knew Mayan architecture could have built the temple building and the funky one near it shaped like a giant white door knob.Biosphere 2

In any event, there’s nothing else like Biosphere 2 on Biosphere 1 — the name Biospherians give our planet earth.Biosphere 1 or Planet Earth

Biosphere 2 was the brainchild of John Allen, who once lived on Synergia Ranch, a 1960s hippie commune near Santa Fe, NM. Allen believed that the human race would end through nuclear war or environmental disaster. He envisioned a few people surviving in a sealed environment, perhaps even on another planet, who would save our species.

1960s Psychedelic Biosphere

Psychedelic Biosphere

Lucky for him, Allen was a friend of a Texas oil millionaire willing to put up $150 million to build Biosphere 2.

A new team of 12 Biospherians were supposed to enter Biosphere 2 every two years for a hundred years. The five “biomes” or areas that mimic earth’s desert, rain forest, savannah, marshes and ocean would supply all their needs in a completely sealed environment.

Biosphere's ocean is puny.

Biosphere’s ocean is puny.

The first team entered September 26, 1991, looking mega-cool in Trekkie uniforms. Most of them knew each another –some from Synergia Ranch. A Time Magazine reporter wrote that they talked “mystically” about their friendships and belief that nothing could ever go wrong in a bubble-world of 3800 species. They walked through that sealed door with great expectations. Biosphere 2 sealed Door

Right from the start, however, the experiment ran into trouble. The very first week one Biospherian cut her finger off and had to break the seal to go to ER. Later people accused her of smuggling supplies in her duffel bag.

Within a month everyone was losing weight and feeling weak and hungry. Although they were growing large amounts of food, the Biosphere 2 team was not getting the calories they needed from their plant-based diet to do the physical work of farming. All they could think about was food. They got into competitive porridge-making and a fantasy game about pretend desserts. Ice Cream Biosphere 2 GifThey ate their three-month emergency food supply. Then they ate their seed stock, a two-year supply of dried fruit and other monkey food, as well as birdseed and hummingbird nectar. As one member put it, “We were suffocating, starving and almost going mad.”

Their fish were dying off, and fish bodies were clogging up the water filtration systems.The Biosphere 2 team also spent a lot of time stomping on ants and cockroaches, who were taking over the building.
Biosphere Rain Forest

Meanwhile, oxygen levels dropped to life-threatening levels. Nearly every animal with a backbone died. The Biospherians grew weak, tired, and irritable. They suffered from altitude sickness and sleep apnea.They must have felt like they were in prison. The windows have bars. They look out on a vast empty desert. Sonoran Desert from Biosphere Windows Their average weight loss was nearing 18% of original body weight. On December 19, 1991, the project managers gave up, broke the seal and pumped 600,000 cubic feet of air and 21,000 tons of liquid oxygen into Biosphere 2.

The team made it to the two-year point, but by that time, they were divided into groups that were not speaking to each other.

A second team entered in February 1994 even as their millionaire-backer was investigating misuse of funds. John Allen resigned.

On April 4, 1994, two members of the original team, upset about Allen’s resignation, opened an air-locked door and three emergency exits. Then they broke five panes of glass to effectively ruin the second experiment.
Bio-Dome  movie posterThey were arrested and charged with burglary and criminal damage. The project managers ended the mission prematurely in September, and there has never been another team living in Biosphere 2 since.

The 100-year experiment clearly failed. One source called it not science, but a $150 million vanity piece. Biosphere 2 was on Time’s list of the 100 Worst Ideas of the 20th Century.Another View of Biosphere Farm

Nevertheless, there is something wonderful about Biosphere 2. It’s a monument to the Trekkie Dreamer in all of us. It’s a symbol of the part of us who raced to step on the moon, who put that spider-y looking probe on Mars, and who managed to land a spacecraft on a tiny comet traveling 38,000 miles per hour in space.

Live Long and Prosper…

Star Trek Emblem
And let the dream endure forever!

For information on visiting Biosphere 2 (you can actually go inside), go to this website
Biosphere 2

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