You never really appreciate the little things — food, air, freedom from octopus invasions — until you lose them. Not that I’ve ever lost those things, gracias a Dios, but last week I had the rare opportunity to visit a place where back in 1991 eight people – visionaries? Lunatics? Cult members? — suffered all that and more. Why? Because they voluntarily sealed themselves inside a giant glass-and-steel structure for two years in an outlandish experiment known as Biosphere 2. (What’s Biosphere 1? That would be the planet Earth.)
You may remember the early rapturous announcements about the project: this human laboratory in Oracle, Arizona was going to teach us to save our own planet, show us how we could live on Mars, and provide new benchmarks for human endurance and scientific knowledge. The gorgeously designed 3.14-acre enclosure recreated various Earth habitats— savannah, ocean, rainforest, etc. — and the four men and four women living inside it would conduct studies and experiments that were impossible to carry out in Biosphere 1.
Discover magazine called it "the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President John F. Kennedy launched us toward the moon." Talk-show host Phil Donahue, broadcasting live from the site, called Biosphere 2 "one of the most ambitious man-made projects ever."
What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out.
For start, Mother Nature had her own ideas. The morning glory vines grew so vigorously they blocked sunlight urgently needed by edible plants. UV light entering through special glass delighted the lizards but also attracted and killed the bees, so the humans had to pollinate the plants by hand. Baby octopi, accidentally carried in on the coral, began happily eating the oysters, crabs, and fish meant for human meals. Small monkey-like prosimian galagos, intended as companion animals, ran amok, raiding supplies and wrecking instruments and experiments. The little scamps soon disappeared from the official record, and I couldn’t bring myself to inquire more deeply into their fate.
As it happens, Rich and I had visited Biosphere 2 during the late 1990s, after the experiment was shut down. Having read various “had-we-but-known” articles about the project, we were unsurprised to see nothing but a glass-and-steel dome overrun with plants. But at its peak, the project was a heady mix of science experiments, public vindication for the holistic vision of the swashbuckling leader, John Allen, and performance art. Hundreds, often thousands of spectators and members of the media gathered outside daily, peering into the glass dome, shouting questions and encouragement. Celebrity visitors included sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, Jay Leno, a Tibetan lama, a Mexican sorceress, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, the cast of Cheers, members of NASA, and leaders of the Smithsonian.
Between farming, science, and media interviews, you’d think the eight biospherians wouldn’t have much spare time to get into trouble. But you would be wrong.
Yes, romantic liaisons formed. Then things got tense as food supplies ran low, cockroaches overran the dome, and oxygen levels dropped dangerously. To make matters worse, the biospherians could only grow enough coffee for one cup every few weeks. The group split into two factions of four, with one side loyal to Allen’s holistic vision, the other staunchly defending scientific method. Outside the dome, conflict raged between Allen and Ed Bass, who’d put up $150 million and expected to have more influence over the project. (Go figure.) Heads began to roll, staff members ran for the hills, and the press started referring to Biosphere 2 as “New Age drivel masquerading as science."
Incredibly, the eight biospherians soldiered on, accomplishing some solid research and sticking it out for the full two years. It was actually two years and twenty minutes, thanks to Jane Goodall’s long keynote speech. As the eight biospherians waited impatiently for the airlock doors to open, one recalls thinking, “Jane, let us apes out of the cage!” When they were finally released, they rushed outside into arms of their loved ones — only to recoil at the stench of the perfumes and chemicals they wore, which seemed strange and repellant after two years using nothing but natural, unscented soaps and shampoos.
The saga continues with a second crew entering Biosphere 2 for a stay that would be abruptly cut short. Outside, senior management were in open warfare. Meanwhile, two bisospherians from the original crew came back in the middle of the night and opened all the doors to “free” the team inside — who had no interest in leaving. Then, just when you’d think the story couldn’t get any more bizarre, it seems Bass called upon — of all people — Steve Bannon, who arrived with a restraining order and armed guards to take over and sort things out. Eventually the project was shut down and much later the property was purchased by the University of Arizona for scientific research.
Best of all (from my point of view, at least) it’s now open to the general public.
I hadn’t heard about its renaissance as a roadside attraction until last week, when I was visiting friends in Tuscon and glimpsed a highway sign. “Hey, did that say Biosphere 2?”
“Yes,” said my friend. “We were thinking of going there tomorrow. Taking the tour.”
“You mean we don’t have to stand outside with our noses pressed against the glass this time? I’m in.”
We spent hours climbing around the habitats, threading our way through the labyrinth of maintenance tunnels underneath, and imagining what it would have been like to be sealed inside for two years.
When the tour was over, I asked our guide to recommend a book about the project. “If you want to read about the fights and all that,” she said, “get Jane Poynter’s The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes in Biosphere 2. If you want to know about CO2 levels there are several scientific works…” I think you can guess which book I immediately downloaded onto my Kindle.
“Later,” wrote Poynter, “people would ask me why I wanted to give up two years of my life to go inside Biosphere 2. I could never understand this question. I did not view it as giving up two years, but gaining them. I wanted to be part of something bigger than me. It was historic. It would make my career. It would be the closest thing to living on Mars. I would find out for myself whether man-made biospheres work. I would experience being enclosed for two years, isolated from the world, so I could impart my knowledge and experience to those who followed, hopefully on their way to Mars.”
Biosphere 2 may not have achieved all its loftier goals, but as a roadside attraction it is second to none. The backstory is astonishing. The visuals are spectacular. And it all makes you appreciate just how delicately our planet’s ecosystem is balanced on the knife edge of survival.
Would I ever have been tempted to become a biospherian? Oh, hell no. They lost me at “one cup of coffee every few weeks.”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, my favorite city on the planet. I'll keep you posted on ways the pandemic has reshaped the city, how to stay safe here, and where to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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