By: Sonja Brankovic
An image of the Biosphere 2.0’s massive rainforest complex (left) and the “technosphere” (right) that provided life systems support/kitchen facilities to the crew.
In the small town of Oracle, AZ, a short 34 miles from Tucson, stands a sprawling 3.14-acre greenhouse. This isn’t your average greenhouse though—Biosphere 2.0 was once considered “the most exciting scientific project” conducted in the US since the moon landing. Throughout the 1980s, engineers designed and built a waterfall, a savannah, a desert, wetlands, and an ocean, all contained within the biosphere facility. Once complete, eight “Biospherians” sealed themselves in the compound to conduct scientific research on complex ecosystems. They wanted to better understand our Earth (“Biosphere 1.0”) with controlled agricultural experiments. Despite this noble intention, the project was fraught with media controversy, conflict between crew members, and structural difficulties. Today, researchers are attempting to challenge this bad press with innovative work on marine systems, soil formation, and climate science.
Peyote trips and environmentalism
Biosphere 2.0 was the brainchild of John Allen, an engineer, artist, and businessman who, after a couple experiences taking peyote, a psychoactive cactus, left his Manhattan office job in 1963 to travel the world and find serenity. He came back to the US to start a commune in Santa Fe, Synergia Ranch, which emphasized organic farming and environmental awareness. A few years later, Ed Bass, the billionaire heir to a family oil fortune, moved to New Mexico and found a kindred spirit in Allen. Together, they envisioned and executed (with Bass’s financing) several global projects, all aimed at improving ecological sustainability. They called their group the Institute for Ecotechnics, and came to believe their understanding of agricultural systems would be key for space colonization.
In 1984, Allen unveiled plans to construct a sealed ecosystem as a model for engineered life on Mars. Backed by Bass, Allen and his group spent $150M on the facility. They had good reason: the grand plan was to completely recycle sewage and water as well as grow and manage crops, all this in a completely contained environment. These were challenges NASA didn’t conquer for their own missions until 2009. And because of the small scale of Biosphere 2.0 (compared to its namesake), the results for any measurement taken could be directly attributed to the built environment. Geologists, garden designers, and other experts introduced 3,800 plant and animal species to the complex, earning Biosphere 2.0 the nickname “Noah’s Ark: the Sequel.”
Finally, in 1991, a fully kitted crew of eight entered the Biosphere airlock for a 2-year mission. The group included a botanist, a marine biologist, a physician, and researchers. Their mission, in the words of Biospherian Mark Nelson, was three-fold: learn about the fundamental processes within biospheres, develop eco-technology, and evaluate the strength of their project plan. The crew stepped into the freshly furnished sphere with a lot of public interest and media hype, true, but they knew the project was highly important—possibly critical—for success in future space travel.
What could go wrong?
A lot. Less than two weeks into the mission, one of the crew members accidentally cut off the tip of her finger in a threshing machine. She had to leave the sphere for surgery and reentered it with a duffel bag (obviously this wouldn’t be possible on Mars). The media latched onto this slip-up, and this was just the beginning. The first morning after the mission began, the crew noticed CO2 levels inside the sphere had grown dangerously high. The problem was two-fold: soil microbes produced carbon dioxide at a faster rate than the newly-sprouted plants could photosynthesize oxygen. CO2 rates continued to be high for several months, causing crew members to become tired and short of breath. Eventually, liquid oxygen was pumped in from the outside.
Controlling invasive species was another issue. A few stowaways—particularly ants—snuck into the sphere, before it was sealed, and multiplied. Cockroaches were initially brought in to help recycle organic matter, but they, too, exploded in population and threatened the biosphere’s plant life.
Technical problems aside, all eight members had to deal with being in an enclosed space with crew members they didn’t necessarily befriend. Fights broke out, and the crew broke into two groups of four that didn’t speak to each other. They disagreed about whether to update the project plan throughout the mission. Nelson described the situation as “irrational antagonism,” but emphasized that they all worked on improving group dynamics.
Despite the challenges, the crew was hardworking and spent much of their time farming, researching, writing reports, and cooking. Their crops included rice, yams, peanuts, eggplant, beans, squash, and herbs. They recorded their findings diligently and had to quickly learn how all their respective areas (wetlands, savannah, ocean, etc.) interacted with each other.
These successes weren’t emphasized in the press, and by the end of the two-year mission, the exorbitant costs and mission hiccups caused Bass to shut the mission down. By the end of the decade, the project had earned a spot on Time's “100 Worst Ideas of the Century”, along with chain email, prohibition, and hydrogen-filled blimps.
Education and rebranding: Biosphere 2.0 today
By 1996, Bass wanted new investors to support the biosphere facility. That year, the facility’s lease was purchased by Columbia University, then later by the University of Arizona. Both institutions used the complex to run global climate and atmospheric change scenarios.
Today, UArizona runs the biosphere as a combined educational and research facility. Several new research directors are hoping to improve the compound’s reputation with innovative proposals in water runoff, soil absorption, and evaporation. At the same time, Biosphere 2.0 is open for visitors and has guided tours.
Despite all of the media fallout and funding changes over the past 20 years, participants from the 1991 mission are still proud of their accomplishments. Nelson has said he is “optimistic that humans can solve the problems they cause”. One thing is for sure: Allen’s original ideas have blossomed into something more than he could have ever imagined. The biosphere’s impact on ecological research will be seen for decades to come, with new publications on soil systems, tropical ecosystem models, and the environmental impact of carbon dioxide (as a small sample selection) coming out every year.