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 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.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.
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.
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. They 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.
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. 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.
They 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.
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…
And let the dream endure forever!
For information on visiting Biosphere 2 (you can actually go inside), go to this website