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Biosphere 2
Biosphere 2 initially attracted support in the space activist community, who saw the effort as a precursor to future human colonies on the Moon or Mars. (credit: Biosphere 2)

Beyond the Biodome

Biosphere 2 is up for sale, all 12,700 square meters and 6,500 windows of it.

What? You never heard of Biosphere 2? Then consider yourself lucky. It was yet another embarrassing episode in the history of space activism, perpetuating an image of space activists as goofballs.

Biosphere 2 is a large facility located 25 kilometers north of Tucson, Arizona. It was billed as an enclosed environment—Earth is considered “Biosphere 1”—where the interactions of plants, animals and humans could be studied in detail. In September 1991 a group of “biospherians”—eight men and women wearing blue jumpsuits—locked themselves inside the glass-enclosed facility. Their plan was to stay inside for a period of two years without relying on outside assistance. The project sent ripples of excitement through the space activist community, where the biospherians and their research were hailed as pathfinders for a future Mars mission or lunar colony. At space activist conferences like the 1992 Case for Mars the biospherians made tele-video appearances and talked about all the exciting things they were doing inside their giant glass terrarium—things like raising rabbits and planting wheat. Their images were usually projected upon a large screen in a conference room and they took questions from the audience members, many of whom praised them for their courage and dedication to the cause of space colonization. It was good that they had outsiders to talk to, because according to a colleague of mine who regularly communicated via e-mail with the biospherians, several members of the group were no longer on speaking terms.

Biosphere 2 sent ripples of excitement through the space activist community, where the biospherians and their research were hailed as pathfinders for a future Mars mission or lunar colony.

Despite all the praise and enthusiasm in space activist circles, there had long been warning signs that Biosphere 2 was not a serious operation. The management group operating Biosphere 2 refused to submit their work to independent scientific review, instead creating a sham “review” process that the scientific community laughed at. Instead of publishing papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, the group copyrighted everything they produced and released it themselves, which largely ensured that it would be ignored by environmental, atmospheric, and space scientists. The project’s participation in scientific circles was essentially nonexistent.

There were also darker secrets as well: Biosphere 2 was funded in the late 1980s by a billionaire, Ed Bass, who had apparently been influenced by a doomsday cult to spend $200 million on the facility. This was back before “Heaven’s Gate” (castration, comets, mass suicide) gave doomsday cults a bad name.

The lack of scientific respect and the cultish origins didn’t deter the space activist community, however, which since at least the mid-1980s has been overly willing to attach itself to any effort that was both non-NASA and ideologically correct (meaning dedicated to space colonization). What made so many space activists admire the Biosphere project so much was that for once someone seemed to be actually “doing something.” In fact, this was often the defense within the activist communities whenever someone questioned Biosphere 2’s dubious foundation. Whether what they were actually doing made any sense did not matter, for being a space activist has long been more about religion—faith—than logic.

Fortunately, Biosphere 2 did not disappoint those who viewed it more as entertainment than any serious effort to advance space exploration. Soon after the airlocks were closed and the crew locked inside, one of the biospherians was injured and the airlock was opened and he stepped outside to get medical treatment. There were some grumblings both in the media and the space activist community that a crew on its way to Mars could not pull into the local hospital for emergency care, but the incident was soon forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until it was revealed that instead of simply opening an airlock, the biospherians had actually kept the doors open for awhile to replenish their air supply.

Fortunately, Biosphere 2 did not disappoint those who viewed it more as entertainment than any serious effort to advance space exploration.

Not too long afterwards there were reports that the air quality inside Biosphere 2 was deteriorating rapidly: oxygen levels were falling and carbon dioxide levels rising. Various people struggled to find an explanation for this development and in the course of the search the biospherians let slip that they had even had to turn on their CO2 scrubbers to purify the air. “What CO2 scrubbers?” outsiders asked, at which point the group running Biosphere 2 revealed that they had put carbon dioxide scrubbers like those used on submarines inside the facility—and conveniently forgotten to tell anybody about them.

Eventually excessive carbon dioxide in the air was traced to the concrete used to construct the facility. It was undergoing a chemical reaction and increasing the carbon dioxide. The lack of oxygen was traced to excessive organic material in the soil used in the greenhouses. But in the meantime, massive amounts of fresh air had been pumped into the Biosphere to prevent the eight jumpsuited crewpersons from dying. The crew made it to their two-year mark and emerged into Biosphere 1 looking a lot thinner, and happy to be on the outside again.

The massive hole in the project’s credibility did not deter those committed to the cause, however, and soon a second group of biospherians locked themselves inside for another two-year journey. However, by this time Bass, the project’s benefactor, had reached his tolerance level with the group managing the project and decided to evict them and take over the facility. Two members of the first biosphere team then showed up on the property, allegedly to warn the members of the second team, and according to Bass’ account, tried to sabotage the facility. US Marshals were called and soon a gaggle of lawyers succeeded where bad air had failed before and the second biosphere crew was evicted, like so much biomass.

Billionaire Bass eventually contracted with Columbia University to run Biosphere 2 as a research and tourist facility, which they did until September 2003. Nobody was locked inside for long periods anymore. The space activist community quickly forgot about Biosphere 2, and many activists undoubtedly hoped that many other people would also forget about their association with the whole embarrassing project as well.

Whether what Biosphere 2 was actually doing made any sense did not matter, for being a space activist has long been more about religion—faith—than logic.

Biosphere 2 was ultimately more lame than weird. So lame, in fact, that the 1996 movie Bio-Dome starred Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin. (Although, to steal a line from the late, great Mystery Science Theater 3000, it is probably wrong to say that a movie “stars” Pauly Shore and more accurate to say that most of the time the camera is pointed at Pauly Shore). To be fair, the movie also featured British pop star Kylie Minogue.

The space activist community seems to have learned a few lessons from its association with the Biosphere project. Later in the 1990s, when Robert Zubrin’s Mars Society decided to establish its Mars analogue station at Devon Island in Canada’s far northern territories, the project included a substantial amount of space geek silliness and propaganda, including people walking around in fake spacesuits. But the group also established a real scientific agenda and wisely linked up with NASA’s existing Haughton Mars Project, studying the Haughton meteor impact crater and its surrounding area. Today they study the local geology and biology, and also try to extrapolate what it can teach us about conducting similar research on Mars.

Meanwhile, Biosphere 2 is up for sale, although it is unclear how much Bass’s Decisions Investment Corp. is asking for the 140-acre campus. The company’s spokesperson says that they would love to see the place used as a research facility, but are perfectly willing to settle for other offers.

It is doubtful that the Mars Society could buy it, but I hear that Pauly Shore is interested.


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