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Biospherians Remember Life in a Self-Contained World

  • Rene Gutel

Fifteen years ago, a team of scientists built a giant greenhouse in the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States. Filled with plants and small farm animals like chickens and goats, the glass and steel structure was designed as a microcosm of the earth. It was called Biosphere 2 -- a reference to our own biosphere here on Earth -- and was imagined as a prototype for a human space colony.

Although the project dissolved under the weight of scientific and manmade problems, the participants remain proud of what they accomplished. One of them, Jane Poynter, calls Biosphere 2 "the poster child . . . for space exploration, for environmental and ecological research. It really did talk about hope for humanity and vision for the future."

Poynter is one of the eight people who lived inside Biosphere 2 for two years. The idea was relatively simple. The Biospherians, as they were called, would bring nothing in and take nothing out. They would grow all their own food, and the facility would even be completely sealed from the outside air.

It was called a breakthrough experiment and received wide attention from the media, including television newscasts. ABC's Peter Jennings introduced a report about it as "a look into the future through the eyes and thoughts of eight men and women who are about to enter a tiny, manmade world in the middle of the Arizona desert."

The eight researchers began their two-year journey on September 26th 1991. They were specialists in a variety of fields, including a medical doctor. Inside, the four men and four women each had their own living quarters. They rose early to tend to the plants and gardens, and feed the animals. They cooked their own meals, and kept records of the changes they observed in the plants and the atmosphere.

Biospherian Linda Leigh says after the experiment began, they began to notice a problem. "When we closed the door in the Biosphere," she recalls, "the oxygen level was a little bit lower than the ambient - and the ambient being what we breathe right here outside - and the carbon dioxide was a little bit higher than the ambient. And after a period of months the carbon dioxide kept increasing inside and the oxygen was decreasing. So we not only had an atmosphere that was not very healthy for humans, because of the low oxygen and high CO2, but we had a puzzle."

The crew couldn't pinpoint the cause of the oxygen loss, but Biospherian Jane Poynter says they immediately began to suffer its effects. "You feel incredibly lethargic. You couldn't complete a sentence without taking a breath. It was really quite dreadful."

The team made the controversial decision to add oxygen. But that decision came at a cost. Biosphere 2 was ridiculed in news reports. "When it opened, it was touted as a prototype for human colonies in space," said one. "It's going to be very difficult if they have the kind of trouble in space that they're having near Tucson." Another reported, "Some charge it could bring an early end to the scientific project. The Tucson TV report reveals scientists learned the plants alone could not remove enough carbon dioxide from the indoor atmosphere."

In addition to the oxygen problems, the Biospherians struggled to grow enough food. And there were also personality conflicts. But they did last the full two years, re-emerging on September 26th, 1993.

Jane Poynter says part of the problem was that the project was over-hyped. "I think a lot of people felt betrayed, to some degree, because, you know, we had said we're not going to take anything in! It's going to be materially closed. Well, of course, I mean that's really a rather ridiculous statement."

Linda Leigh agrees. "There is our core group of people, the Biospherians and a few of the other people involved in the idea of the Biosphere, who are like a little army of people who were convinced that it was going to be absolutely perfect when we closed the door." Looking back, she recognizes how silly that was, but adds, "maybe we had to think that way in order to get it done."

After the experiment ended, scientists struggled to determine the cause of the oxygen loss. Part of the problem, they found, was that microbes in the soil absorbed oxygen faster than the plants could replace it. For a while, Columbia University used the Biosphere structure for environmental research, but in 2003, Columbia backed out. The experiment's original financial backer, Texas billionaire Ed Bass, has put the property up for sale. It hasn't been sold yet, but high-end real estate developers have expressed interest. For now, the greenhouse is open daily for public tours, a relic of an unrealized vision.

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