Eight people trapped in a man-made terrarium surviving only on what they can produce inside, oxygen depletion, group infighting, a multi-million-dollar experiment gone awry—it sounds like the plot of an 80s science fiction movie. But, the Biosphere 2 experiment was very much real, and its controversies and legacy are still debated today. Conducted between 1991-1994, the Biosphere 2 experiment began with the mission to find out if a self-contained, Earth-like colony could be viable for future space exploration. If humans could replicate Earth’s ecosystems and resources, then perhaps interplanetary life could exist in the not-so-distant future. After only two experiments had been conducted within the closed shell of Biosphere 2, the program ended, and today Biosphere 2 is a science-nerd tourist attraction and an ecological research center owned by the University of Arizona. How could such an ambitious research project have failed so catastrophically?
The idea for Biosphere 2 was put into action in 1984 by the company Space Biospheres Ventures, funded by billionaire Edward Bass. The company acquired 3.14 acres of land in Oracle, Arizona and began construction in 1986, with construction costs totaling $150 million. Built from glass and unsealed concrete, the exterior of Biosphere 2 was designed like an enormous greenhouse. The sun was intended to be the primary source of energy for plant life within the Biosphere, supplemented only partially by artificial light. The demand for energy to keep the Biosphere running—and specifications such as temperature to always be met—required large amounts of energy which was provided from external sources. The most challenging aspect of building Biosphere 2 was ensuring an airtight seal within the walls. The bottom of Biosphere 2 was lined with stainless steel to prevent the soil and microbes within Biosphere 2 from mixing with the soil from the exterior environment. The glass itself was laminated and reduced leaking. The main issue was making sure that any leaking out from within Biosphere 2 was negated by the plant and animal functions inside.
Biosphere 2’s layout is relatively simple. There was an area for humans to live and sleep (the only opaque part of the building) situated next to a large area for agriculture where the Biosphere scientists (Biospherians) would grow crops and livestock for their sustenance. There were other biome sections within Biosphere 2: a rainforest, a savannah, a desert, and even an ocean. Outside of the enclosed Biosphere 2, there were several apparatuses that were critical to its functionality. There were two “lung” chambers that connected to the main building. These held extra air and gasses that were exuded inside the Biosphere. This kept the pressure at the right level within Biosphere 2, which would have otherwise exploded under the immense pressure of its gasses. There was also an energy center and cooling towers that kept Biosphere 2 running.
The first major experiment finally began in September of 1991. Eight Biospherians waved goodbye to thousands of tourists and television cameras as they entered Biosphere 2. The mission of this experiment was merely to survive. This proved to be much more difficult than anyone had expected. The first winter in Biosphere 2 also happened to be unusually cloudy for Arizona. This stunted plant growth for the Biospherians, who ultimately had to use part of their emergency food supply in the first few months. The Biospherians were not experienced farmers and had to deal with hunger for most of their time within Biosphere 2.
Food shortages proved to be one of many problems in the first Biosphere 2 experiment. Cockroaches were among the animals allowed into the Biosphere because they are detritivores and would break down dead matter. However, the population grew wildly out of control and infested the Biosphere. This reduced the population of pollinator species and hurt crop growth.
The most serious issue with the Biosphere 2 experiment was the increasing amount of carbon dioxide and decreasing amount of oxygen. The oxygen levels within the Biosphere became equivalent with the oxygen available at altitudes of 15,000 feet. This made it difficult for the Biospherians to breathe and conduct their work due to inhibited brain function. The carbon dioxide build up was a result of the soil composition, which had a high carbon reserve. Microbes living in the soil were too efficient and used up oxygen and released carbon dioxide. The untreated concrete in the building’s structure absorbed the carbon dioxide rather than the plants which caused the decrease in oxygen levels as time went on. Ultimately, the safety of the Biospherians was at a serious risk and oxygen had to be pumped in externally.
There were not just environmental challenges at play in the Biosphere experiment. The interpersonal relationships between Biospherians worsened as time went on and the eight crew members felt the effects of cabin fever. Two factions also formed over the management of the Biosphere. One group wanted to change the direction of the experiment and focus on the scientific aspects while the other wanted to retain the original mission. These conflicts became so bad that members of either group would hardly talk to each other.
The first Biosphere 2 experiment ended as scheduled two years later in September of 1993, although not without outside help. Aside from the external oxygen needed towards the end of the experiment, there were many reports that the Biosphere managers snuck food and other supplies like mouse traps in during the two-year period. This has led to many scientists distrusting the results and discounting the experiment as a whole.
Despite the controversy after the original Biosphere 2 experiment, another crew was chosen, though under new management. Space Biospheres Ventures appointed ex advisor to former President Trump, Steve Bannon, to be in charge of the next experiment. Bannon was tasked with cutting costs in the experiment—however this was not a universally popular decision. Two members of the original Biosphere experiment, Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo, broke into Biosphere 2 in April of 1994, letting in external oxygen, and claimed that Bannon was putting the lives of the Biospherians at risk by cutting costs. While the experiment continued for five more months, it was cut short and Bannon sold Biosphere 2 to Columbia University, which was then sold to the University of Arizona in 2011. A string of lawsuits between Biospherians and Space Biosphere Ventures ensued and were eventually settled. These controversies were the nail in the coffin for Biosphere 2 in its original purpose. There was never again a sealed Biosphere experiment.
In regards to its original intent, Biosphere 2 failed as a precursor to space colonization. Success, however, is a matter of definition and Biosphere 2 was a success in other areas. Mark Nelson, an original Biospherian, wrote about his experience in the Biosphere, saying that it “revolutionized the field of experimental ecology.” He described how the Biospherians worked together to overcome the challenges they faced and how it felt to resolve them. Biosphere 2 was not a complete failure; it is a combination of a psychological and environmental experiment whose structure still stands. It is truly one of a kind and provides a space today for important research to be conducted about the Earth—otherwise known as Biosphere 1.
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