When Biosphere 2 Became a Grand Experiment in Self-Isolation

When Biosphere 2 Became a Grand Experiment in Self-Isolation

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It was the ultimate social-distancing experiment.

On September 26, 1991, four men and four women in dark-blue spacesuits waved goodbye to friends, families and a bank of television cameras as they stepped through an airtight door to embark on an unprecedented mission. In spite of their “Star Trek” styled uniforms, the eight adventurers did not blast off to outer space but sealed themselves off from the outside world for two years inside Biosphere 2—a three-acre, glass-and-steel terrarium in the Arizona desert.

“The future is here!” declared crew member Jane Poynter as she stepped inside the $150 million ecological laboratory and planetary commune prototype that featured 3,800 species of plants and animals and five miniature biomes—a rainforest, coral reef ocean, marsh, savanna and desert.

To test the human capacity for living in isolation in outer space, the eight “Biospherians” hoped to be entirely self-sufficient by growing their own food and recycling all air, water and waste. While they could communicate with the outside world by email, telephone and fax, for two years there would be no hugs with loved ones, no food deliveries, not even any toilet paper.

READ MORE: Who Invented Toilet Paper—and What Came Before

A Countercultural Commune Launched Biosphere 2

The idea for Biosphere 2 (Earth being the first biosphere) emerged from an avant-garde theater and ecological commune known as the “Synergists” that originated in San Francisco in 1967. “What distinguished this group from other counterculture types is they identified as capitalists,” says Matt Wolf, director of “Spaceship Earth,” a 2020 documentary about Biosphere 2. “Their model was to create enterprises designed to be both economically and ecologically sustainable.”

The Synergists operated ecological projects from the tropical rainforest in Puerto Rico to the Australian outback and even built their own ship that they sailed around the world. They were led by charismatic polymath John Allen, a Harvard MBA and metallurgist who penned poems and short stories under the pseudonym Johnny Dolphin and who, according to a 1994 Arizona Daily Star article, was “described by those who’ve known him as both a visionary and an abusive mind-control guru.” Allen has repeatedly refuted the charges made by his critics and denied to the newspaper “all allegations concerning singular and authoritarian control over the Biosphere 2 experiment.”

Billionaire Edward Bass, the maverick son of an oil tycoon and a self-styled “ecopreneur,” was among those drawn to Allen after visiting his Synergia Ranch in New Mexico. With Allen’s vision and Bass’s money, the Synergists constructed Biosphere 2 north of Tucson.

Longtime commune member Mark Nelson was among the eight-person crew who entered Biosphere 2 in the fall of 1991. “There were moments of absolute bliss, and if you wanted privacy you could hide yourself in a number of biomes,” he says of his experience. The Biospherians celebrated Thanksgiving with a feast of chicken, baked squash and sweet potato pie and toasted the winter solstice with rice wine.

Wintertime cloud cover, however, contributed to crop failures and low oxygen levels that made the eco-explorers feel as if they were at an elevation of 14,000 feet. Hummingbirds and honeybees died while ant and cockroach populations exploded. The Biospherians lost significant amounts of weight as the long workdays, oxygen depletion and low-calorie diets made even climbing stairs a daunting challenge.

Those setbacks didn’t help group dynamics, which Nelson said was the most difficult part of life inside the bubble. Although Biospherians broke into factions, he says it didn’t impact their research. “What usually happens in small groups is subconsciously they start to sabotage their work and the overall mission,” Nelson says, “but that never happened because we all fell in love with Biosphere 2.”

READ MORE: 1960s: Counterculture and Civil Rights Movement

Lack of Transparency Plagued the Project

While scientists questioning the validity of Biosphere 2’s experiments cast stones at the glass house, the project’s public image also suffered from a lack of transparency. Two weeks after entering Biosphere 2, Poynter departed for surgery after severing a fingertip in a rice-threshing machine.

Months later, it was revealed that she brought along a duffel bag full of equipment upon her return. Then came revelations that a three-month supply of food had been stockpiled inside Biosphere 2 before the experiment began, that air was being pumped inside and that its doors had been regularly opened to bring in supplies such as seeds, vitamins and mouse traps.

With an endeavor so big, the Biospherians fully expected failures. “That’s why you do experiments—to learn what you don’t know,” Nelson says. However, the media tended to cover the enterprise like a survivalist reality show. “The theatricality drew a lot of eyeballs, but the nuance of what this group was trying to do with long-term visions was lost in the expectation that it was this human experiment in which eight people are locked in and nothing can go in and out,” Wolf says.

In spite of the challenges they faced, the eight Biospherians made it through their two years apart from the world. The next crew, however, would not.

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Biosphere 2 Management Turned to Steve Bannon

Weeks after the new seven-person crew entered Biosphere 2 on March 6, 1994, problems back in the first biosphere intruded on the project. With the enterprise’s finances floundering, Bass placed the company into receivership and named investment banker Steve Bannon, who would become a key advisor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, as the new CEO.

Bannon insisted on the removal of Allen and other senior managers. Fearing for the new crew’s safety, original Biospherians Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo broke into Biosphere 2 before dawn on April 4, 1994, to warn of Bannon’s involvement. “I considered the Biosphere to be in an emergency state,” Alling said. “I made a conscious decision to terminate the experiment.”

While the Biosphere 2 crew decided to stay, they vacated it five months later as the venture devolved into a flurry of lawsuits and countersuits. Bass donated the facility to the University of Arizona in 2011, and research on smaller projects continues.

“The reality of what the endeavor was all about got lost in the shuffle,” Nelson says. “This was to be the prototype for a space colony and to judge it by whether it worked for two years isn’t true to its purpose and trivializes the whole thing. Biosphere 2 is a 100-year project. We built it for the long-term investigation of fundamental processes underlying the earth experience.”

A Grand Experiment

Mark Nelson, one of the eight crew members locked in Biosphere 2 during its first closure experiment, offers a compelling insider's view of the dramatic story behind the mini-world in his forthcoming book Pushing Our Limits: Insights from Biosphere 2 (University of Arizona Press). Nelson clears up common misconceptions about the 1991–1993 closure experiment as he presents the goals and results of the experiment and the project's implications for today's global environmental challenges.

On a winter night in January 1993, by opening a doorway we experienced a stunning physiological revival. We left a world with an oxygen level around 14 percent equivalent to being on a 15,000-foot-tall mountain. In fact, we were at a 3,900-foot elevation in southern Arizona. Oxygen had been slowly disappearing for sixteen months. No one knew where it had gone. We were slowly climbing a mountain but going nowhere. Mission Control had pumped oxygen into a chamber on the other side of the door. Our atmosphere suddenly contained 26 percent, which was 5 percent higher than Earth's air. In minutes, we felt decades younger. For the first time in many months, I heard the sound of running feet.

So many strange, disturbing, marvelous, powerful, and profound experiences unfolded during our two years as "biospherians." The eight of us felt extraordinarily lucky to be the initial crew to live inside a miniature biosphere. We had to learn how to be its first natives.

Biosphere 1 (B1) is our Earth's biosphere. Biosphere 2 was a three-acre world. B1 houses the global ecosystem, which includes all life. B1 is our planet's life support system. Biosphere 2 was built to study how biospheres work, creating a laboratory for global ecological processes, to help ecology become an experimental science. It could also provide baseline information to design long-term life support systems for space.

The facility included people, farming, and technology. Earth's biosphere has supported life for four billion years. Only quite recently have billions of people and modern industries been added. Living in Biosphere 2 might give new perspectives on whether—and how—harmony can be forged between humans and the global biosphere. Our two-year experiment began on September 26, 1991. We'd have two seasonal cycles to study how Biosphere 2 functioned. For comparison, a human spaceflight to explore Mars would also take two years. No one knew if we could stay inside for two years so many things could go wrong. The facility was optimistically designed for a one-hundred-year operation.

The first closure experiment was the "shake-down" mission a trial run to find flaws, bugs, what we had to correct or change. We were also determined to collect as much data and to do as much research in collaboration with outside scientists as possible.

The odds, even from project insiders, heavily favored an early exit. Too many challenges—known and unknown—could end the experiment early. Some thought we wouldn't even last three months. The world record in a closed ecological system was six months set by two-person crews at a Siberian research institute. Their basement facility powered by artificial lights was the size of a small apartment, their only companions were food crops. Our own sunshiny world contained a rainforest and a coral reef in a towering structure with seventy-five-foot-tall roofs. Every day we were able to stay alive inside, we would amass reams of research data.

We entered an untested facility in almost totally uncharted territory.

We included small chunks of Earth's diversity inside the biosphere bonsai rainforest, tropical grassland (savanna), desert, mangrove marsh, and coral reef ocean co-existed under one roof. Some of the world's top ecologists and most innovative engineers worked to make this possible no one knew how these biomes would develop. Ours was cutting-edge science, the greatest experiment in ecological self-organization ever conducted. To maintain biodiversity, we biospherians would intervene when we could. Our fog desert decided to go its own way and transformed during the experiment maintaining the others took hard work and ingenuity, the coral reef, in particular, was a nail-biter to the end.

In our nearly airtight world, we would experience the highs and lows of living intimately with seven other people. Outside politics and power struggles polarized and exacerbated in-fighting, though we entered as the best of friends and colleagues. I wouldn't permit a bitter "To the traitors" as toastmaster at a Sunday night dinner where we enjoyed a precious bottle of home-brewed banana wine. There were no fistfights, but one crew member complained years later that she had been spit at. Twice. But we continued working unselfishly with one another. Whenever we feasted, partied, or enjoyed a rare delicacy like a cup of coffee from rainforest trees, tensions magically melted away. We'd relax and enjoy a temporary truce from group tensions. We acted mindfully in Biosphere 2, understanding that its teeming life was keeping us alive and healthy. We took care of her needs with tender loving care. She was our third lung and lifeboat. Some of us thought Biosphere 2 was the ninth biospherian.


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Eight Americans and Europeans suddenly became subsistence farmers. We lived off the land, eating what we grew, though we farmed in a high-tech, $150 million facility.

Our small farm exceeded organic standards. We used nothing that might pollute our air, water, soils, or crops. We recycled our water and soil nutrients. Even our sewage was treated and recycled. We cared for our farm animals with affection, but they were slaughtered as needed. Our diet consisted primarily of fruits, grains, and vegetables.

We experienced hunger throughout the two years and plates were always licked clean. Almost all of us became much better cooks. Peer pressure for delicious food was a great motivator. I and many others ate our roasted peanuts whole, shell and all we would eat anything to fill the stomach void. We were guinea pigs, the first humans extensively studied on an "undernourished but not malnourished" diet. This paralleled the pioneering research of Biosphere 2's in-house doctor, who claimed a person could live 120 years on a calorie-restricted diet.

Periodically, project managers reminded us we were volunteers the airlocks were unlocked, and we could leave anytime we'd had enough or if there were health dangers.

For safety, we had our resident doctor and a team of specialists on call at the nearby University of Arizona College of Medicine, and a fully equipped medical facility and analytic laboratory were inside the biosphere. Automated systems could detect potentially toxic substances in our air and water. We started with a biosphere as clean and unpolluted as possible. Chemical deodorants and cleaning supplies weren't allowed because our world was so sensitive to pollution. Even a small fire would mean evacuating, so we didn't light candles, even on a birthday cake. At winter parties, a monitor played a video of a wood-burning fireplace—we felt warmer sitting near it.

Though we didn't intend it, the toes of dominant analytic, small-scale science were seriously stepped on. The reductionist approach seeks to analyze everything at the micro level, each variable being tested separately. Biosphere 2 used both analytic and holistic science approaches. The project violated unspoken taboos. Include humans and our technologies in the experiment? Heresy! We knew one thing for certain: Biosphere 2 would ignite plenty of controversy.

Systems ecologists and veterans of NASA's Apollo Project 1960s glory days were allies from the beginning. To achieve the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, NASA abandoned component-by-component testing and went to "all-up systems testing." We followed a similar strategy to create this complex miniworld it couldn't be done piece by piece like Lego.

The six years from project conception until completion were exciting. Scientists, engineers, and hundreds of construction workers were very motivated. They were making history, doing the near impossible. Some doubted at every stage whether Biosphere 2 could be built, operated or used for advancing human knowledge. Who were these mavericks behind the project?

Despite many world-class scientists and institutions consulting, the whole endeavor was way too ambitious, too daring. Even some friends and colleagues of the project thought it was fifty years ahead of its time.

Biosphere 2 was radical and revolutionary—a challenge to "business as usual." The entire "technosphere" had one overarching goal: serve and protect life. Our engineers had to design technology to make waves, rain, winds they had to control climate and mimic geological processes. And they had to use machinery and equipment that wouldn't poison and pollute. Life ruled. Technology knew its place and obeyed and served, a radical notion. What would happen if we did that everywhere?

The engineering goal was about 1 percent per month air exchange (leakage) from the biosphere. That's thousands of times tighter than the most tightly sealed buildings and homes, far tighter than even the International Space Station. But, if this air-tightness was achieved we might wind up with a horrific "sick building syndrome" from a buildup of trace gases. We needed a way to ensure that those trace gases didn't build up in a structure with two acres of farm and wilderness areas, hundreds of pumps, motors, and other equipment, and miles of piping. Our solution was to use our farm soil and plants as a biofilter to clean the air. We hoped it would work.

Carbon dioxide was called the tiger of Biosphere 2. We continually monitored its levels in our atmosphere since it could destroy our world, and it would be difficult to keep the levels from rising too high. Every cycle goes hundreds to thousands of times faster than normal in a tightly sealed, small, and life-packed miniature biosphere. Our ocean and atmosphere were tiny compared to Earth's we had entered a time machine. Would all the life inside Biosphere 2—with us humans doing everything we could to help—be sufficient to prevent a runaway rise in carbon dioxide, our tiny version of climate change? If CO2 levels got too high, our coral reef might die, all the plants (including our food crops) might slow their growth, and our health might be directly threatened.

By closing the airlock behind us and starting our two-year experiment, we pushed the limits and stepped into the unknown. It would be a roller coaster, with despair and sadness and euphoria and achievement. Every day, we worked to keep Biosphere 2—and ourselves—alive and healthy. For the eight of us, it was a profoundly personal and life-changing journey.

From Pushing Our Limits: Insights from Biosphere 2 by Mark Nelson. © 2018 The Arizona Board of Regents. Reprinted with permission from the University of Arizona Press.

What Happened When Eight People Were Sealed Inside a Self-Contained Ecosystem

In the early 1990s, Biosphere 2, a series of glass domes in the Arizona desert, was famously occupied by eight residents who attempted to tend to a closed ecosystem without any resources from the outside world. The project cost $200 million and was a media sensation, albeit one depicted as an entertaining flop that allowed for voyeuristic schadenfreude at best and a fraud at worst.

In his novel Mount Analogue, about an expedition in search of an imaginary island, French mystic René Daumal wrote, “It must be unique, and it must exist geographically. The door to the invisible must be visible.” Spaceship Earth, a new documentary about Biosphere 2, begins in the 1960s, with a group of dreamers inspired by Daumal. Over the course of several decades, they undertook a series of communal projects that escalated in scale — from a sustainable ranch to a massive steel sailboat to the construction of Biosphere 2, a self-contained microcosm of our planet. The three-acre terrarium was designed as a prototype for a vessel that could be sent into space were humans to exhaust the Earth’s resources, as well as a way to collect data about sustainable living while we’re here in the meantime.

Comprised of rich and abundant archival footage, Spaceship Earth is a reframing and reappraisal of the project. It’s a wild and enlightening explication of a half-century’s worth of social and political dynamics, and as such, it’s also a film about systems. Director Matt Wolf meticulously examines the reactions that occur when the forces of environmentalism, ratings-hungry commercial media, avant-garde theater, public relations, investment capital, and interpersonal relationships alchemize.

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The story of Biosphere 2 is instructive. The “Biospherians” managed to build Daumal’s “visible door” in Arizona … and then, in a memorable scene, they struggle to close the actual door to Biosphere 2 behind them as their grand experiment begins. Ahead of Spaceship Earth’s digital release, we spoke to Wolf about the film over video chat.

Hyperallergic: It’s about 45 minutes or an hour before the film brings the audience inside the Biosphere project itself.

Matt Wolf: Yeah, it’s an hour. It’s halfway through the film before you get inside. It’s a little counterintuitive, but I think so much of what’s interesting about Biosphere 2 is the ideas that led to it. I wanted to understand how this project was countercultural, even though it was certainly framed as a pop culture phenomenon in the context of ’90s television. But the group, the Synergians, they were convinced of the historical significance of what they were doing, so they documented everything. And when I became aware of the complexity of all of their projects that led to Biosphere 2, editor David Teague and I decided to make that prehistory a substantial focus of the film.

The nature of the experiment itself is fascinating, but to me, so much of the drama and saga surrounding Biosphere 2 is media spin and hype. What interests me about the actual mission is looking at Biosphere 2 as a metaphor — for a kind of model for sustainability, for intentional community and group coalescence, but also for the failure of human ambition and the limitations of that kind of idealism.

H: How do you sort out the balance between making a film that’s about big ideas — capitalism, ecology, utopia — and providing us with character specificity? That’s something I also thought about a lot with your last film, Recorder.

MW: My ultimate goal is to get people to have an emotional relationship to ideas. I think I usually make stories that are portraits, centered around individuals who become vectors for these bigger cultural histories and conceptual ideas. And this film was particularly challenging because it is a huge tapestry of characters there isn’t a singular focus to it, and so it was important to be conscious of the particularities of those individuals. But the thing that was easier about this than most of the films I’ve made is that it had a Byzantine plot and a dramatic story with all these twists and turns.

H: There are two things happening simultaneously with Biosphere 2. The Biospherians are constantly trying to prove to the world that they’re scientists, because the media narrative becomes ‘Are these real scientists or are they some sort of spectacle?’ But they’re both doing real science and have their practice rooted in theater and art. You can’t decouple the art from the science.

MW: The word ‘experiment’ is very loaded in an institutional context. It has the baggage of academic protocol or governmental protocol, in terms of being goal-oriented around a hypothesis, and having a particular model of working to narrow the scope of one’s thinking to get results and tangible knowledge that builds on a body of scientific inquiry. But if you come to it from a point of view of art, it’s a much broader, kind of spirited term. And in this film, there’s a lot of experimentation.

There’s an experimental community, the kind that found expression in the back-to-land counterculture movement. There’s theatrical experimentation in avant-garde theater that their group, the Theater of All Possibilities, pursued. And then there’s the kind of experimentation that they characterized as “voyages into the unknown” or a “lifetime experiment.” I interpret that as pursuing projects and ideas that have never been pursued before.

And then when we’re inside Biosphere 2, it becomes clear that beyond a scientific experiment rooted in a different method of a closed system or total system, it is also a human experiment. That it’s as much a spectacle of environmentalism as it is of human relationships in confined spaces and under scrutiny. But that’s also part of what’s so interesting about Biosphere 2. It’s all these things that don’t usually coexist, and they did — kind of uncomfortably in this case, and in ways that were to the detriment of the project. But they were also at the core of its vision, and what’s special about it.

H: The media is so suspicious of the project. As it proceeds, it feels like they’re almost counting down to its failure. Is this kind experimentation so threatening, that we are somehow programmed to think of their ideas as pernicious?

MW: If you pursue a project that has no precedent, and you’re kind of hazy or open-ended in terms of how you define its intentions and goals, and you’re open-minded to it not going as planned, then to be held accountable to standards of success and failure is kind of irrelevant! But when you pursue a project that costs $200 million and you court the attention of the international media and engage in a kind of theatrical spectacle, you should expect that people are going to have more binary conceptions of what your project should or shouldn’t be, or how it succeeds or fails. So to me, it’s not a surprise that the project was rebuked.

It actually took me a long time to understand and define what the purpose of Biosphere 2 was from the point of view of its inventors. They’re so defensive because they were so attacked in the media. I think such defensiveness dilutes the significance of what they were doing.

H: There’s a real tension between the experimental nature of the project and capitalism. One of your subjects clarifies: ‘We weren’t a commune we were a corporation.’ That tension is carried all the way through ultimately, their fate lies in the hands of investment capital.

MW: Yeah, I wanted to trace neoliberalism through the film. Basically, these people weren’t hippies precisely because they identified as capitalists, even though they operated within a model of patronage. Still, they were venturing to create enterprises that could be both ecologically and economically sustainable. That was their argument for Biosphere 2: It would lead to all sorts of green technology and patents to facilitate Mars colonization in the future. It seems a little out there that that would be a viable business model, but they had a partner in Ed Bass, who was not holding them to short-term profit maximization.

One limitation of capitalism is that new ideas take a long time to work. The project operated on such a scale that its long-term mode of thinking wasn’t feasible. It wasn’t just that they were betrayed by the forces that funded them it was that they hadn’t created something that was ecologically and economically sustainable. They had intended for their experiment to go for 100 years, and that wasn’t going to be viable.

H: I think a lot about the way radical movements, as they travel through history, often have all the radicalness ironed out of them.

MW: That’s a big interest of mine. The continuum from radical to mainstream forms part of the argument in Fred Turner’s book From Counter Culture to Cyber Culture, which is a portrait of neoliberalism through the prism of Stewart Brand. People who wanted to reinvent the world and went off the grid had this unexpected connection to technology and tools, they became architects of the neoliberal system, and these radical ideas became mainstream. In my film Bayard and Me, about Bayard Rustin, there is this idea of gay guys adopting each other to get equal rights, which was so radical at the time. But it’s actually a precursor to gay marriage, which is now a very mainstream notion of civil rights.

And part of the downfall of this project is that they had radical ideas and thrust them into the mainstream. Did the Synergists and Biospherians belong on Good Morning America? Probably not! But they were.

H: There’s such a wealth of archival material that it’s easy to forget as you’re watching how amazing it is that this breadth and scope of coverage exists.

MW: Often shot from multiple angles, or with cranes! It’s unprecedented. I’ve never had access to material like this.

H: You’re not asking us to keep looking at the archival material as having its own narrative, as you did in Recorder. But by the time we reach the end and you hear that all the data they collected was lost, I thought, ‘Oh, but you documented everything!’ It’s a very different kind of data, but it’s here.

MW: It is data. Actually, Mark Nelson, one of the Biospherians, says that the footage shot inside is a tremendously valuable form of data. And yeah, it wasn’t just to create a story. It was to create a comprehensive archive of what they had done.

In so many senses, all this work was in vain, as it was lost or has been discounted. But you’re right, actually it wasn’t all lost it just hadn’t yet been reappraised and put toward meaningful research. And that is what we tried to do, look through their archive and the things they had so diligently collected to reappraise what they had done. Instead of just saying that they were interesting, we were able to show that they’re interesting.

H: Early in the film, one of the Synergists says that if you want to make a contribution to history, you have to notice these moments of opening and act. That statement really resonates with this moment we are in right now.

MW: I felt that when I was a gay teenage activist. Matthew Shepherd had been murdered, Ellen DeGeneres came out. I felt invisible and oppressed, and it was a moment to do things of real political consequence. It’s not only the domain of youth — although I think it largely is — but I do think there are moments when something is hugely significant to you, and the time and circumstances are right, in which you can actually throw yourself into that. People need to be open to that, particularly now that the world is completely destroyed.

But I also think what she’s really talking about is about relationships. You meet someone and feel a gravitational pull to them, and if you begin a relationship it will change the course of what you do. I think these people jumped into a relationship with each other, and it empowered them to react to all their circumstances. That’s totally how I want to live my life. If I gravitate toward someone to pursue a meaningful relationship, that might not just turn into a project, but also expand how I think. That does change the course of our lives, through the expansion and redefinition of community and family.

Spaceship Earth is available to stream via a variety of platforms starting May 8.

Review: Revisit the controversial Biosphere 2 project with Spaceship Earth

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In September 1991, amid much media fanfare, eight people entered a closed experimental facility called Biosphere 2 for a two-year stint in total isolation. They endured hunger, a dangerous rise in CO2 levels, interpersonal squabbles, a media backlash, and sharp criticism from the scientific establishment. Today, most people might recall Biosphere 2 as a colossal failure. But the truth is much more nuanced than that, as we learn in Spaceship Earth, Director Matt Wolf's self-described "stranger than fiction" documentary about the controversial experiment. The film made a splash at Sundance earlier this year and is now available for streaming on Hulu, Apple TV, and other select platforms.

Biosphere 2, a 3.14-acre facility located in Oracle, Arizona, has a long, colorful history tailor-made for the documentary treatment. Built between 1987 and 1992, its original objective was to be an artificial, fully self-sustaining closed ecological system—a large-scale vivarium, if you will. (It was called Biosphere 2 because the Earth itself is the original biosphere.) There were seven distinct "biome" areas: a rainforest, an ocean with living coral reef, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, mangrove wetlands, an agricultural system (i.e., a small farm), and a human habitat.

Spaceship Earth delves deep into the roots of the project, going back to the 1960s, when John Allen and several cohorts (some would later deem them cultish followers) moved from San Francisco to New Mexico and founded a commune called Synerga Ranch. They were inspired by surrealist/spiritualist French novelist René Daumal, among others, as well as Buckminster Fuller's Spaceship Earth. They even built their own geodesic dome on the ranch, the better to hold communal gatherings and stage amateur theatrical productions. (They would later tour as the Theater of Possibilities.)

Once the ranch became self-sufficient, Allen grew bored and moved his core group to Berkeley, where they built a ship called the Heraclitus on the Oakland shore. Miraculously, given their lack experience, the Heraclitus proved seaworthy. Under the umbrella of what would become the Institute of Ecological Technologies, they also founded several successful business ventures around the world, in partnership with Ed Bass, the heir to a massive Texas oil fortune who was among those drawn to Allen and Synerga Ranch.

All that is prologue to Allen's idea for Biosphere 2, inspired in part by the strong environmental themes of the 1972 post-apocalyptic film Silent Running. In that film, all plant life on Earth is becoming extinct, and a group tries to preserve as many specimens as possible in greenhouse-like geodesic domes, attached to a large spaceship just outside the orbit of Saturn. For his real-world project, Allen envisioned an enclosed, completely self-sufficient structure on Earth that could serve as a test module for setting up a colony on the Moon or Mars.

High Science

In the 1990s, eight scientists, called &ldquobiospherians,&rdquo were locked in the complex for two years in an experiment to see if engineered Earth systems could support human life in a contained environment. The complex was highly engineered. The original designers built mechanical &ldquolungs,&rdquo an airflow system that breathed to accommodate movement in the glazing and spaceframe generated by solar heat. The entire complex was sealed to prevent atmospheric intrusion.

The experiment was controversial, but the engineering proved itself over the two years. Since then, ownership changed hands twice before the University of Arizona acquired it in 2011. UA scientists felt they had acquired a facility like no other, where truly grand-scale experiments could be conducted on landscape-scale changes in Earth systems behavior.

BIM systems produced 3-D drawings, allowing designers to spot conflicts before construction. Image: M3

Life Under the Bubble

Biosphere 2 has stood amid the paloverde, mesquite, and ocotillo southwest of Oracle, Arizona, for less than 20 years, yet it looks decidedly aged. Its skin is mostly glass and lacks window-washing tracks, so the hundreds of panes had to be cleaned by workers hanging on ropes like rock climbers. At one time seven people were employed to do this today there are none. The desert wind deposits dust on the structure and the rain washes it downward, forming parallel streaks. The rain forest inside pushes against the glass. In 2003 there were about 150 employees on the site. Less than a third remain. Dry leaves collect against the air handlers by the main doorway whiptail lizards skitter over the concrete paths, and javelinas trot around the grounds at night. A note on a whiteboard in the operating engineer’s office tallies the number of poisonous reptiles encountered on the site, which is greater than the number of maintenance people left to encounter them: “Rattlesnakes: 17.”

The café is closed, the mission control building deserted, and inside the row of clear plastic sheds where plants were readied for installation in the main structure, towering exotics—Panama hat palm, angel’s trumpet—stand bleached and lifeless where they perished when the water was turned off. A monochrome monitor displays the last numbers it ever knew, burned into its dead screen. On the shelf below is the 1986 manual for the environmental monitoring system to which it was connected. Nothing ages faster than the future.

Constructed between 1987 and 1991, Biosphere 2 was a 3.14-acre sealed greenhouse containing a miniature rain forest, a desert, a little ocean, a mangrove swamp, a savanna, and a small farm. Its name gave homage to “Biosphere 1”—Earth—and signaled the project’s audacious ambition: to copy our planet’s life systems in a prototype for a future colony on Mars. A May 1987 article in DISCOVER called it “the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President Kennedy launched us toward the moon.” In 1991 a crew of eight sealed themselves inside. Over the next two years they grew 80 percent of their food, something NASA has never attempted. They recycled their sewage and effluent, drinking the same water countless times, totally purified by their plants, soil, atmosphere, and machines. It wasn’t until 18 years later, in 2009, that NASA announced total water recycling on the International Space Station. At the end of their stay, the Biospherians emerged thinner, but by a number of measures healthier.

Despite these successes, the media and the science establishment seized upon the ways in which the project had failed. Chief among these was an inability of Biosphere 2’s atmosphere to sustain human life. As was true outside, the problem was signaled by rising carbon dioxide. By 1996 Biosphere 2 had passed into the hands of Columbia University, and later the University of Arizona took over. Both used it to run scenarios of global climate and atmospheric change. In its later life, “instead of trying to model utopia, Biosphere 2 would actually model dystopia —a future plagued by high carbon dioxide levels,” wrote Rebecca Reider, author of a definitive history of the project . But while most research on impending environmental disaster relied on computer models, Biosphere 2 represented a fascinating alternative mode in which large-scale analog experiments employed real organisms, soil, seawater, and air.

The man behind Biosphere 2 was John Allen , a Colorado School of Mines–trained metallurgist and Harvard MBA. In 1963, after two hallucinogenic experiences on peyote, Allen looked out of the Manhattan office building in which he was working and realized he could not open the window. He felt trapped like a bug inside glass—an ironic epiphany for a man who would work so hard to seal up a handful of his followers three decades hence. So he sailed from New York aboard a freighter and traveled the world, seeking wisdom. By 1967 he had become a self-styled esoteric teacher in Haight-Ashbury-era San Francisco, delivering weekly lectures to a group of mostly younger followers and cohabitants. In 1968 he and his students went to New York to set up a theater company, and from there to New Mexico, where they started a commune near Santa Fe. If most such counterculture experiments yielded to entropy and poverty, Allen’s Synergia Ranch is a notable exception. The Synergians were a very hardworking bunch.

In 1974 a lanky young Texan and Yale dropout named Ed Bass wandered up the driveway to Synergia Ranch. Like Allen, Bass had a strong interest in the environment. Unlike Allen, he was the billionaire heir to an oil fortune. Later that year Allen and his followers drove an old school bus to Berkeley, California, where they built an 82-foot sailboat. None of them had ever built even a rowboat. In 1975 they began sailing the Heraclitus around the world. They took her up the Amazon River, dove coral reefs in the tropics, and sailed her to Antarctica to do research on whales.

With John Allen’s big dreams and Ed Bass’s big money, the Synergians began taking on bigger things. They acquired a huge cattle ranch in Australia, started a sustainable forest in Puerto Rico, built a hotel and cultural center in Kathmandu, and took on other projects in Nepal, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States. Now calling themselves the Institute for Ecotechnics , they began hosting international meetings on ecology, sustainable development, and then space colonization. At a conference in Oracle in 1984, Allen announced his plan to build a prototype Mars colony on Earth before the decade was out. The destiny of human beings was to seed Earth’s life into space, and the first stop would be a working colony on Mars.

The principals of the institute broke ground for Biosphere 2 in January 1987. If some of them lacked academic qualifications for the jobs they held, they enlisted real experts to execute the design. Walter Adey, a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution, was in charge of the ocean. The rain forest was the domain of Sir Ghillean Prance, then director of the New York Botanical Garden. These and other experts installed 3,800 species of life inside, even as cranes lifted great sections of white superstructure into place overhead. The majesty and complexity of the project entranced the press, touching on myth and religious narrative, Rebecca Reider wrote. Time called it “Noah’s Ark: The Sequel.” This created expectations that would be hard to meet.

In September 1991, four women and four men in NASA-style jumpsuits entered the air lock of Biosphere 2. Twelve days into the mission, Jane Poynter , a young Englishwoman in charge of the farm, put her hand in a threshing machine while winnowing rice. The group’s doctor sewed the tip of her middle finger back on, but the graft didn’t take and she was evacuated for surgery. She returned in only a few hours to serve out the two-year mission, but when she reentered the air lock, a duffel bag was placed inside with her. It contained nothing of substance, Poynter said—some circuit boards and a planting plan for the rain forest—but the media had a field day with it, along with the fact that someone had left and then reentered, which couldn’t have been done on Mars.

More ominous, signs of trouble with the internal atmosphere began within 24 hours. Each morning the crew had a breakfast meeting over bowls of home-grown porridge in Star Trek –style chairs around a polished black granite table. The morning after closure, the crew captain announced that carbon dioxide in Biosphere 2’s atmosphere had risen to 521 parts per million, a 45 percent increase above levels outside at the time. By the following day, the lowest it went was 826. Over the months that followed, the news at the morning meetings got worse. Crew members were feeling tired and began to pant when they climbed stairs.

In May 1992 in Palisades, New York, geochemist Wally Broecker got a phone call from someone at Biosphere 2, asking if he would be willing to consult on their atmosphere. Since the late 1970s, when he became the Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Broecker had been sounding the alarm about a buildup of carbon dioxide in the big atmosphere. An elfish presence with a dried-apple-doll face and wild, tousled hair, he was already one of the great men of atmospheric-change research when he crossed the George Washington Bridge for dinner with John Allen at a Manhattan restaurant. The meeting had a cloak-and-dagger feel. Allen, a handsome, clean-shaven, broad-shouldered man who often wore a fedora, reminded Broecker of Indiana Jones. By Broecker’s account, Allen proffered a graph of the gas composition of Biosphere 2’s atmosphere, then nervously pulled it back, as if someone else might see it. A week later Broecker flew to Arizona and began collecting data.

Much attention had been focused on charismatic species when Biosphere 2 was put together. A biologist surveyed the world’s hummingbirds to find one with a bill the right shape to pollinate a variety of plants inside the structure, and without a mating display predisposing it to fatal collisions with the glass. But Broecker and his graduate student Jeffrey Severinghaus discovered that the culprits in the carbon dioxide problem were the tiniest organisms on board: soil bacteria.

The process of their subversion was respiration, in which living things release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Green plants absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, making carbohydrates and releasing oxygen, but they also do the reverse: Plants, too, respire (or breathe), burning carbohydrates to do work like making branches and roots. In the soil around their roots, billions of fungi and soil bacteria respire as well. In fact, the greater part of all “breathing” in terrestrial systems goes on underground.

Ever grand in their ambitions, Allen and his people intended Biosphere 2 to be used by rotating crews for 100 years. Feeling they had one shot to invest their world with life-giving nutrients, they had loaded their soils with compost and rich muck from the bottom of a cattle pond. (Agricultural chemicals used inside might end up in their air and water.) When the air locks closed, soil bacteria had a massive party, exhaling carbon dioxide and tipping the balance the wrong way.

As oxygen was converted to carbon dioxide, free oxygen in the atmosphere declined . By January 1993, Biosphere 2’s carbon dioxide levels were 12 times that of the outside, and oxygen levels were what mountaineers get at 17,000 feet. The crew’s doctor was having trouble adding up simple figures and disqualified himself from duty. So, a year and four months into the mission, tank trucks containing 31,000 pounds of liquid oxygen started driving up the access road to the site.

The story of fresh-faced idealists getting taken down a notch played well in the media. For two years the glass walls of Biosphere 2 were lined with TV cameras and tourists. The crew’s lives turned into reality TV. In fact, the producers of the world’s first reality TV show, Big Brother , which aired in the Netherlands in 1999, acknowledged Biosphere 2 as their inspiration. True to reality TV’s typical plotline, months cooped up together while struggling with their atmosphere and hunger and being filmed by well-fed people led to squabbles among the Biospherians. They emerged from the air lock in September 1993 in two groups of four who weren’t speaking. Organizational cracks opened between them and their advisory scientists and extended into their relationship with Ed Bass. Originally budgeted at $30 million, Biosphere 2 had already cost a reported $200 million. By the time a second crew took its place inside, Bass had had enough. On April 1, 1994, his bankers, accompanied by carloads of armed federal marshals and sheriff’s deputies, swept into the site with a restraining order. The second crew lingered inside Biosphere 2 for another five months and 16 days before terminating its mission.

Biosphere 2, it was widely reported, was a catastrophe. In 1999, when Time did its fin de siècle summary of the 20th century, it included Biosphere 2 in its list of the worst 100 ideas.

With the biospherians ejected from their eden, Bass’s people began looking for a new entity to operate the facility. Eventually they struck a deal with Columbia University. The new director of research was Wally Broecker, who had coined the term “global warming” two decades earlier. Here was a gigantic laboratory flask with a whole tropical forest and an ocean inside it—models of what many scientists suspected were the two biggest carbon sinks in the world. By 1995, when the deal was closed, Broecker was not alone in his sense of urgency.

That January, Rodolfo del Valle , chief of Antarctic earth sciences at the Argentine Antarctic Institute, received a distress call from colleagues at a research station adjoining the Larsen A ice shelf. The men were yelling, and in the background Del Valle could hear a roar. The Larsen A, a sheet of ice the size of Rhode Island and 500 feet thick, was collapsing into the Weddell Sea. The next day Del Valle called for an aircraft and flew over the area. All that was left of the massive ice shelf were small icebergs as far as the eye could see. “I cried because I could see the future,” he said. That December, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that greenhouse gases were rising, with human activity the likely cause and dangerous changes in the earth’s conditions a likely result.

Joe Berry, a plant physiologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, came to work with Broecker at Biosphere 2 in 1996. Berry, Guanghui Lin, Kevin Griffin, Bruno Marini, Barry Osmond, and others began afflicting the little world with simulated droughts and a high-CO2 atmosphere and measuring what happened in its rain forest and farm, now planted with rows of cottonwood and poplar trees to simulate a commercial forestry operation—a natural carbon sink.

As evidence of global warming increased, removing carbon from the air had become important in the world outside. Success hinged, in part, on understanding the feedback loops between photosynthesis and respiration on a global scale. As it stands, photosynthesis, which takes in carbon dioxide, only slightly outstrips respiration, which releases it again. The difference between intake and output—just 1 to 2 percent of the total carbon going into ecosystems—accounts for the amount of carbon fixed in things like the trunks of Biosphere 2’s cottonwoods. What would happen to this relationship, Berry and his colleagues wondered, as the world grew warmer and more carbon dioxide was released? Photosynthesis was limited by the amount of carbon that green plants could scavenge out of the air. But with more carbon dioxide present, would photosynthesis speed up, saving us all by fixing more carbon?

What the scientists found inside Biosphere 2 was that when CO2 was elevated, plants photosynthesized more, but their leaves and roots and the soil bacteria respired more as well . “Carbon just chased itself around the cycle faster,” Berry says. There was no net benefit. Today soil respiration remains the wild card it was for the Biospherians. Known to increase with warmer temperatures, it could cut the carbon sequestration from tree-planting projects to zero as soils belch out more CO2 than what is stored in tree trunks and the like.

Meanwhile, in 1996, Broecker invited Chris Langdon, a young marine ecologist at Columbia, to have a look at what could be done with the ocean. Langdon may have been the only person on his flight to Arizona with dive gear. He hadn’t been spending much time in deserts his research more typically had him on oceangoing research vessels. He showed up for work in sun-faded T-shirts, looking more like an extra for a Jimmy Buffett music video than a professor.

The first thing Langdon set out to do was balance the chemistry of Biosphere’s ocean. It had gone acid, absorbing carbon dioxide from Biosphere 2’s atmosphere and forming carbonic acid as a result. This was happening on the outside, too, although it was a phenomenon biologists had largely ignored until then. “Of the carbon dioxide human beings put into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation,” Berry says, “roughly a third remains in the atmosphere, a third goes into terrestrial ecosystems, and a third goes into the ocean.” As a result, Langdon says, the world’s oceans have fallen one point in pH since the Industrial Revolution. That doesn’t sound like much, but pH is logarithmic. Today’s oceans are 30 percent more acid than they were a century ago.

Langdon worried about the effect on shellfish and coral. When seawater gets more acid, he explains, it holds fewer free carbonate ions. Corals and marine organisms that build shells rely on free carbonate for raw material. Biosphere 2 was the perfect lab here was a little ocean in which, unlike the real one, acidity could be adjusted. By manipulating the acidity of the Biosphere 2 ocean and measuring the resulting growth rates in coral between 1996 and 2003, Langdon proved that ocean acidification from rising atmospheric carbon dioxide would radically affect calcium carbonate–shelled marine life (pdf). He forecast that by 2065, rates of growth in coral reefs would decline by 40 percent.

in experimental modeling of life systems and geochemistry, scale and complexity are important. In what are called microcosm experiments, plant physiologists study leaves in sealed containers so their gas exchange can be tracked, but that gives information only on the leaf’s relationship to the atmosphere, not that of the whole plant, its soil, and other plants and animals. As the scale gets bigger, enclosed experiments are referred to as mesocosms. There has never been an experimental meso­cosm as big as Biosphere 2.

However promising the facility was during the Columbia period, grant applications and submissions for publication from Biosphere 2 were undermined by the project’s bad press. Like dog feces on a shoe, the project seemed to carry a whiff of something the big grantors did not want in their portfolios. Although it did get some small education grants from the National Science Foundation, major government research agencies generally wouldn’t touch the place. “It was extremely unfair,” Broecker says. In 2003 the situation led new Columbia University president Lee Bollinger to jettison the project. Staff were given pink slips, and filters were turned off in the ocean. Langdon’s corals didn’t survive. For a while it looked as if Biosphere 2 would become a theme park at the center of a housing development. After Columbia walked out of its lease, Ed Bass sold Biosphere 2 to the developer, and the University of Arizona in Tucson took over under a new lease.

Today Biosphere 2 is still open to visitors, a strange mixture of botanical garden, aquarium, and house museum about the lives of the early-1990s Biospherians with slightly big hair and loose-fitting clothes. Roy Walford, the first mission’s doctor, described the place as “the Garden of Eden on top of an aircraft carrier” in Reider’s book. Belowdecks are concrete galleries full of wind from rumbling air handlers, tanks, pumps, and miles of cable and pipe. But aircraft carriers have sailors with scrapers and paintbrushes. Biosphere 2 does not. Rust is becoming a problem.

Down below there is also a cavelike aquarium with viewing windows into the Biosphere 2 ocean. Despite its murky appearance (“the last time we could see the opposite wall was 2004,” my guide tells me), the ocean is not dead. Bright tropical fish appear out of the emerald gloom and flit along the glass: yellow tangs, sergeant majors, doctorfish. No one has been feeding them, says Matt Sullivan , the University of Arizona molecular and evolutionary biologist who now presides over the underwater portion of Biosphere 2.

Remarkably, after nearly two decades of separation from the Pacific, Biosphere 2’s seawater still looks like living seawater under the microscope. “The chemistry and the microbes suggest that it’s just another coastal ocean,” Sullivan says. “I was shocked.” His specialty is microbial life in oceans, and his particular interest is the way that viruses drive the evolution and regulate the activities of bacteria. If this seems like an obscure subject, it is of far more import to our future than it sounds. “Ocean microbial photosynthesis accounts for half the photosynthesis in the world,” Sullivan notes. In May he landed a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the role of viruses in an oxygen-starved region of the real ocean. Sullivan has been using the Biosphere 2 ocean to develop newer, more accurate sampling methods for this task.

From Sullivan’s opaque tropical ocean, which still has a white-sand beach and palm trees at one end, I follow a path across the savanna and through the living quarters to what was once the farm. All its crops and earth are gone. Stripped to bare concrete, it resembles a glass-roofed aircraft hangar. It is now the domain of a red-haired University of Arizona geologist named Steve DeLong, who is working on a huge new mesocosm: three towering, sloping steel tables nearly 100 feet long and 60 wide, upon which will be constructed artificial landscapes with underlying soil and plants. Embedded in the supports will be the world’s most accurate giant bathroom scale, capable of supporting 2 million pounds and sensing changes of less than half a percent. (At the time of my visit last spring, the technology didn’t exist yet, and DeLong was working to develop it with manufacturers of scales that weigh jetliners.)

DeLong is trying to learn how to create realistic rain from a series of pipes and overhead sprinklers. That makes sense, since the university’s new research focus for Biosphere 2 is water: not just rain but runoff, absorption by soil, use by plants, and evaporation. The scales under DeLong’s tables will record real-time changes in water saturation while sensors in the air and the soil record humidity, chemistry, and gas exchange. Arizona no longer runs Biosphere 2 as a sealed facility. It now uses a “flow through” system, in which air exchange with the outside is allowed while sensors record the movement of moisture and gas, enabling accurate estimates of total mass exchange with the outside world. The reason for the change is the cost of energy. Biosphere 2 is a greenhouse in the desert, and Columbia was paying as much as $1.5 million a year to cool it. According to the University of Arizona, energy costs under the new system are less than a third of that.

Back in the 1990s, critics pointed to Biosphere 2 as an example of private philanthropy pushing science in wacky directions. But scientists who have worked in this product of Ed Bass’s generosity see it another way. Wally Broecker, Joe Berry, and Chris Langdon, along with Columbia’s last director of research, Barry Osmond, and the University of Arizona’s present one, Travis Huxman, continue to believe in the potential of mesocosm research. In July 2010, Langdon was in Australia as an adviser on the Australian Tropical Ocean Simulator , currently in the works. The Simulator will allow marine biologists to put ocean life through conditions they hope they won’t see outside, just as Langdon did at Biosphere 2. The University of Arizona, meanwhile, has linked research at Biosphere 2 with projects that operate in the outside world. For example, Sullivan’s use of the facility was ancillary to the principal focus of his grant, which involves mapping ocean viruses around the world. His NSF grant might signal an end to Biosphere 2’s big chill in academia. The university has put out 30 proposals in the last two years and believes some are recommended for funding. Now 81, John Allen still lives on Synergia Ranch in New Mexico with several of Biosphere 2’s builders and at least one of its first crew, who fiercely defend their original vision for it. Their research yacht, Heraclitus, still plies the world’s oceans. Jane Poynter, who lost the tip of her finger in a rice thresher, married a fellow crew member. They started a Tucson aerospace firm, a contractor on NASA’s new Orion space capsule. Wally Broecker still goes to his office across the Hudson from Manhattan. After all Ed Bass gave away, in 2009 he was tied at number 236 in Fortune’s list of the 400 richest Americans. He continues to fund research at Biosphere 2. And Matt Sullivan, the ocean microbe researcher, plans to run the lab while others collect viruses at sea for him. He suffers from terrible seasickness and thinks an ocean in Arizona is just fine.

Filmmaker Explores Original Self-Isolating Biosphere 2 Pioneers

Biospherians (left to right): Jane Poynter, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Taber MacCallum, Roy . [+] Walford (in front), Abigail Alling, Sally Silverstone and Bernd Zabel inside the Biosphere 2 in 1990.

In 1991, eight scientists—four men and four women—entered a privately financed $200 million geodesic dome laboratory called Biosphere 2 to study the viability of a closed ecological system that could support human life beyond Earth. The experiment was to last for two years. Celebrated in the media at its debut, the project ultimately was vilified and widely regarded a scientific failure after CO2 levels became dangerously high and fresh oxygen had to be pumped in. The failure was compounded by the temporary evacuation of the one of scientists for emergency surgery on a severed finger.

Filmmaker Matt Wolf, who was just a boy when the highly publicized experiment took place, reexamines the history of Biosphere 2, its unconventional creators, and the people who were part of the project, in his documentary Spaceship Earth.

The Biosphere 2 project was the brainchild of John Allen, a Harvard-educated engineer and entrepreneur who already had established a number of eco-focused businesses, including an eco-village in New Mexico and science-focused ship built by a group of young people who had traveled the world, all financed by a Texas billionaire named Ed Bass. Biosphere 2 was constructed on a sprawling 40-acre campus in Oracle, Ariz., where it still serves as a science lab and tourist attraction.

Few questioned the ideas and motives of the Biosphere 2’s creators when the facility was under construction in the ‘80s. Initially it was hailed as a bold and brilliant scientific experiment, but over time, as it suffered setbacks and closer media scrutiny. The Jonestown massacre and the deadly standoff with the Branch Davidians were still fresh on the minds of the public and the media was wary of fringe groups led by charismatic, offbeat leaders. Allen had been part of the ‘60s counterculture movement, although his followers were more ecologically minded. They used business models for their projects they established. Allen drew inspiration for the construction of the dome from environmentalist/futurist R. Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. But there was something a little off kilter. His group created avant garde theater alongside its scientific endeavors. Today the blending of disciplines—science and art—is fairly acceptable, but not so much 30 years ago.

Wolf delivers a warts-and-all study of Allen, his followers and colleagues, and the two-year experiment that caught the world’s attention. From New York, where he has been in quarantine for several weeks, the filmmaker spoke about Allen and the group of eight Biospherians who embarked on their project and the legacy of Biosphere 2. While making the film, he says he never could have imagined that a pandemic would require everyone in the world to be quarantined.

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“We are all living like Biospherians,” he says, adding, “and we will reenter a new world.”

The questions, of course, are how will the world have changed when people are allowed to leave their homes and what will be done to protect the Earth from another pandemic?

With most movie theaters closed, the film’s distributor, Neon, will release Spaceship Earth on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, FandangoNow, Vudu, DirecTV, Dish and Hulu, as well as “virtual” cinemas, drive-ins and other businesses Friday May 8.

Angela Dawson: It’s probably not lost on you that most of your viewers will have to watch this film from the comfort and safety of their own homes where they’ve been confined for weeks.

Matt Wolf: When you make documentaries, you expect things to go differently from the way you plan. That’s just part of documentary filmmaking. Every once in a while, a film takes on a different kind of significance than you intended. That is so much the case now. When we were at Sundance premiering the film, no one could have conceived a situation in which people would be quarantined like the Biospherians, and that this film could be constructive or meaningful in context with what we’re going through.

Dawson: Neon has arranged with traditional and non-traditional exhibitors to launch the film on theater websites plus websites of other affected businesses interested in participating, including museums and first-time film purveyors like bookstores, restaurants and others. How do you feel about that?

Wolf: I’m so excited to be collaborating with Neon in the release of Spaceship Earth. What they’re doing is an experiment in the spirit of Biosphere 2. A lot of filmmakers have historically felt like the idea of streaming is kind of a compromise, and that a theatrical experience is the essential way to view a film. I’m no exception to that but I also recognize that sometimes you have to put what you’ve made out in the world in the right context that makes sense for the film, and it makes sense to bring this film to people right now. I’m excited to engage with audiences in a different kind of way. We’re going to be doing virtual events to discuss the film but I’m also excited that people in all sorts of cultural institutions, and even small businesses, can partner with Neon to share the film with their customers and their audiences. When I make films, I like them to be part of a bigger cultural conversation, not just entertainment.

I was speaking with some of my collaborators at Neon about how the film is really about small groups and the power of small groups to come up with new ideas. What Neon is doing is giving people the opportunity to exchange with small groups of their community—whether it’s their small business or their art museum or their independent art house movie theater, and to bring those groups of people together to see an unusual film. So, in so many ways, beyond the idea of quarantine, I feel like the film, in its release, is tapping into something that people are experiencing and thinking about right now.

Dawson: What sparked your interest in the subject matter?

Wolf: I’m really drawn towards hidden history—stories of big significance and consequences that have largely faded from collective memory. Whether or not I knew of them when they originated or the subject is someone or something that nobody has really heard of, I’m interested in bringing the past to life in a new and relevant way. I’m trying to look at old things and seeing them as new. So, Biosphere 2 and the people who came up with it, are totally in my wheelhouse.

Dawson: Before watching your documentary, I remembered the part of the story in which one of the women had to be pulled from the biosphere because of a medical emergency, and the experiment was being dismissed in the media as “another crackpot group.”

Wolf: You’re right, the perception of the (Biosphere 2) project was very dismissive. It’s regarded as this spectacular failure and more as science-fiction than real science, and I’m drawn towards people who think in experimental and new ways. There is an element of craziness and wackiness to that but also insight. So, I think those things can coexist. What captivated the world about Biosphere 2 was its theatrics. There’s a nod to that in the title of the film: it’s both the name of an R. Buckminster Fuller countercultural book called The Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth but it’s also, obviously, kind of an EPCOT amusement ride, which is in this cartoonish geodesic dome. So, both of those things are happening at the same time.

There’s a certain seriousness and rigor to the project but also a kind of theatrical spectacle. That combination appealed to me. I went into it with the belief that the people who came up with this project had a vision and it was coherent. As I learned more about them, I understood how it was the synthesis of so much lived experience and projects that they had pursued. There was also a certain tragedy in the fact that their life’s work had been dismissed and so I was very much interested in reassessing the legacy of Biosphere 2, in all of its complexity—this group’s triumphs but also their warts and all. Those are the types of nuanced stories that interest me, not this black and white notion of success or failure or genius or fraud. I’m interested in all the grey areas in-between.

Matt Wolf helms the documentary 'Spaceship Earth' about the Biosphere 2 experiment in the early . [+] 1990s.

Dawson: Given that John Allen and Margret Augustine (the company’s CEO) were maligned in the media, how open were they and the other subjects you interview in the film?

Wolf: It’s always about earning trust. That’s the biggest part of my job to do my homework and show people my intentions and that I’ve done the real work to understand what they did. Even if that legacy is complicated and unresolved. With this group, there’s a lot of trust issues with the media because they were really taken down. They had so diligently documented everything that they’d ever done. They had hundreds and hundreds of hours of 16mm (film), videotapes and still images, that they recognized what they were doing was historically significant. They obviously had a vested interest in securing a certain historical legacy for their project. So, at first, they were a little bit guarded but they also believed that their work was worthy of being in a film. Same for the Biospherians.

All of them had different interests in the legacy of Biosphere 2 and their own complicated feelings about the depiction of their project in the public eye. I was so grateful to everyone who participated in the film and shared their perspective because I think it makes for a complicated portrait of different small groups, but also of a project that had so many layers to it.

Dawson: Biospherian Roy Wolford shot hundreds of hours of footage inside the lab and served as the crew’s physician. What did he plan to do with all that footage? Other crewmembers documented their stay as well. Were they planning to make their own documentary?

Wolf: Roy was definitely inspired to make his own documentary of his experiences as a Biospherian. For a long time, he engaged in the editing process. He had a kind of epic cut of the film he was making. He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease much earlier than he wanted or anticipated. (He insisted that with his calorie-restricted diet he would live to 120.) He died (at age 79) before he completed it.

I wasn’t aware how much footage there was available. It’s kind of a filmmakers’ dream and unprecedented for me to come across a story with so many twists and turns. Every single piece of the story has footage, which so rarely happens. When I got to the Synergia Ranch and met with the Synergists, I was taken with my producer, Stacey Reiss, to this temperature-controlled room, and I saw hundreds of 16mm canisters, analog videotapes, stacks and stacks of slides, and photographs. I was really taken aback and struck by something one of the Synergists said, “We wanted to document what we were doing because it was history.” That sense of conviction and confidence is what I associate with visionaries. When I saw that archive, I saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell a unique story in an involving and present-tense way.

Dawson: If this Biosphere 2 project were happening today, do you think the reception would be the same?

Wolf: It’s twofold. We live in an era of startups and the dot-com culture, where the idea of disruptors who operate outside of mainstream institutions to pursue novel ideas through private enterprise is not so weird. It was super-weird when John Allen and the Synergists (the experimental farming group he founded prior to Biosphere 2) were doing it.

The premise of pursuing a project related to Mars colonization with a huge amount of private equity would not be considered weird right now. However, the national news media, newspaper journalists, slowly uncovered details about the Synergists in the group and their unconventional credentials, and that group was not transparent with media. In the Internet era, it wouldn’t take long for people to immediately understand the background of the group, and for more critical stories to surface quicker. That might have impeded the project from growing into such a cultural phenomenon. But, you never know. People are a little more open-minded (today) about people doing wild, radical things outside of the mainstream.

What this project proves, and is still true, is that if something doesn’t make money, it can’t last. That was part of the failure of Biosphere 2 is that as much as it was a project committed to the idea of sustainability, its own economics proved to be unsustainable.

Dawson: There’s a familiar public figure that emerges towards the end of your film. Did you try or even want to interview him for the film?

Wolf: So many people don’t know that he is part of the story, so I hope it remains a surprise. The way I like to talk about it is that there’s a contemporary political scoop. I thought that would enhance people’s interest in the story as being relevant today.

Dawson: Doctors, scientists and other experts are at odds on how we should be dealing with the quarantine. There’s Sweden’s approach where virtually everyone there is allowed to roam free and then there are other places like California and New York City where people are confined to their homes except to get food. Do you see us as a kind of a biosphere experiment?

Wolf: I think, and this relates to Biosphere 2, it’s about two things: it’s about solidarity and taking account of your impact on others and of the broader world. I’m in New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. To me, wearing a mask outdoors is about solidarity, in terms of everybody being in this together. It’s not just about me protecting myself but also me trying to look out for other people who are more vulnerable. Part of how we have to deal with social distancing and self-isolation is to look at our impact on the world around us and take responsibility for it because it’s not just about us. It’s about protecting our collective future.

Biosphere 2 Bounces Back

The University of Arizona announced a major new scientific initiative to tackle the grand challenges facing science and society, including global climate change, the fate of water and how energy travels through Earth’s ecosystems. Such areas of study are important in understanding how climate change will affect the future habitability of Earth. Additionally, processes that affect environment of our planet can teach us a great deal about what makes a planet habitable for life as we know it.

The University will lease the 34.5-acre (14 hectare) Biosphere 2 campus in Oracle, Ariz. for a nominal annual fee to conduct such advanced research. A gift from the Philecology Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, in conjunction with other grants and gifts, will fully support the University’s research as well as the base costs of operating the Biosphere 2 facility for three years, with the potential for funding of up to 10 years.

"UA will develop Biosphere 2 into a center for research, outreach, teaching and life-long learning about Earth, its living systems and its place in the universe," said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of UA’s College of Science. "The facilities and resources at this new campus will be an inspiring place for researchers to gather and to tackle problems that science and society will face now and in the future.

"At Biosphere 2, we will address not only the problems of our current condition, but also those of the 22nd century that are still below the horizon."

"The generous gift from the Philecology Foundation, founded by Edward P. Bass, substantially expands the University’s ability to link teaching, scholarship and creativity to the needs of Arizona and our larger global community," UA President Robert Shelton said. "Biosphere 2 will provide our faculty and students exceptional opportunities to address major environmental challenges facing Arizona and the Southwest such as global climate change, sustainability of water resources and land-use change. UA excels at the collaborative, multidisciplinary approach these global scientific issues require."

Under the UA’s management, Biosphere 2 will continue as a major regional attraction and also serve as a laboratory for controlled scientific studies, an arena for scientific discovery and discussion, and a far-reaching public education center. B2 Earthscience, directed by UA Associate Professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Travis E. Huxman, will address issues of global environmental change using a multidisciplinary approach. B2 Institute, directed by UA Regents’ Professor of physics and optical sciences Pierre Meystre, will conduct interdisciplinary programs to tackle scientific "Grand Challenges."

In addition, the UA will operate the popular Biosphere 2 tours. From 1991-2007, the facility had 2.3 million visitors. Biosphere 2 will serve Arizona and the public through education and outreach at all levels — K-12 and continuing through adults — that highlights the exceptional research programs at the UA.

B2 Earthscience Director Huxman said, "As a research facility, Biosphere 2 is unique in its spatial scale. The facility provides us a bridge between our small-scale, controlled, laboratory-based understandings of earth processes and experiments in field settings where we cannot control all environmental conditions. Biosphere 2’s size allows us to do controlled experimentation at an unprecedented scale.

"A unique aspect of this facility is its ability to support experiments that will provide us the missing link between laboratory and real world."

"I salute the University’s deep commitment to conduct research in the Biosphere that will advance our understanding of the Earth, its biosphere and the impact upon it," said Ed Bass, co-founder of Biosphere 2 and president of the Philecology Foundation. "Biosphere 2 was initially created as a tool to probe the essential environmental questions we must ask in the 21st century, and I look forward with great anticipation to what UA will discover."

The controlled-environment facility, 3.14 acres (1.27 hectares) in area, is sealed from the earth below by a 500-ton (453,600 kg) welded stainless steel liner. Ninety-one feet (28 meters) at its highest point, it has 6,500 windows that enclose a volume of 7.2 million cubic feet (204,000 cubic meters) under glass.

One initial experiment addresses key interactions between plants and water. Within the facility, the researchers will build three hill slopes, each about 32 yards (30 meters) long and 22 yards (20 meters) wide, to test how water moves down, into and across the slopes.

"Then we will introduce plants and ask how having life on a landscape changes the behavior of water, both in the air and in the soil," Huxman said. "We are interested in how plants modify their environment — how they change the amount of time a water molecule spends in the soil and how that affects the biogeochemical reactions that happen in soil only when it is wet."

The plants, grasses and shrubs, will be typical of the desert, grassland and savannah ecosystems that cover more than one-half of Arizona and about one-third of the Earth’s total land area.

The Biosphere 2 facility will allow the researchers to control and measure what enters and leaves the huge experimental chamber. A large and sophisticated array of sensors deployed throughout the chamber’s atmosphere and the hill slopes will monitor environmental factors, including water, carbon dioxide, temperature, trace gases and pH.

Inside, the team will control temperature and rainfall to mimic the environmental conditions right outside the chamber. Just outside the chamber, the researchers will build replicas of the indoor hill slopes and conduct the same experiments. Mimicking the local conditions inside the chamber will let the scientists compare the gigantic indoor controlled-conditions experiment with the hill slopes outside that are exposed to natural conditions. All of these experiments will be linked to existing research projects throughout the Southwest.

"Quantifying these processes is key knowledge for managing our natural resources in periods of uncertainty now and in the future," Huxman said.

The public will be able to watch the research as it unfolds, he said. "This is one of the only research facilities that will be completely open to the public. When people go on a tour, they won’t just hear a wonderful description of the Biosphere 2’s history. They will be able to watch research in action and learn what is going on moment-to-moment."

The state-of-the-art Biosphere 2 campus is located in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, 35 miles from the UA campus. UA will manage and operate the controlled-environment facility itself, along with three conference rooms that can seat from 40 to 120 participants, a suite of 36 dual-occupancy offices, and modern housing facilities in a "village" of 28 furnished three- to five-bedroom casitas with fully equipped kitchens. The campus is fully networked.

Fast Facts

The basement area of Biosphere 2, known as the Technosphere, covers nearly 3.14 acres. It is where all the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems are housed. There are 26 air handlers (AH) located in the technosphere. Of these, 14 are large units that can heat and cool the air, remove particles from the air, maintain humidity levels and generate condensate water (for rain, fog and resupplying the ocean). The 12 smaller AHs can cool the air and generate condensate water. To make condensate water or create dehumidification, the air temperature is lowered below the dew point and this cooled air is blown across the chilled or tower water AH coils. Cooling the air causes condensation to form on the coils, which is collected in drip pans located on the floor adjacent to the handlers.

How an Air Handler Operates: The water temperature required by a biome for creating its climate is manufactured in the Energy Center. Then passed along through an underground closed-loop pipe system, to the proper AH coils, and is recycled.

The building with the five arched segments and three towers is the Energy Center complex. The Biosphere 2 laboratory requires continuous power to maintain proper conditions for the living organisms inside and for ongoing experiments. Temperature rise following power failure on a sunny summer day could within 20 minutes irreparably damage the plants in Biosphere 2's biomes. The Energy Center responds within minutes to maintain power and to control the environments in the biomes during the frequent power outages due to summer monsoons.

Within the five arches are two large generators. The primary generator uses natural gas for fuel and a back-up generator uses diesel fuel. In addition to the large generators inside this building, there are also boilers to heat water and chillers to cool water. The large towers are used to cool air by drawing it across a column of water.

Biosphere 2: A Successful Failure

Just 30 miles from the hustle and bustle of Tucson, Arizona lies a magnificent structure with an interesting and troubled past. The sprawling three-acre facility known as Biosphere 2 is hidden from the view of passing motorists on Route 77 by the desert foothills south of Oracle. Those who stop to explore will discover a futuristic building that contains a tropical rainforest, a coastal fog desert, and a million-gallon ocean.

“This place looks like the greenhouse of Buckminster Fuller’s wildest dreams,” I thought to myself as I gazed upon Biosphere 2 for the second time in my life. The last time I had seen Biosphere 2 was over ten years ago, when I was on a class field trip. How things have changed since then!

Not too many people remember Biosphere 2 today, but in the early 1990s it was a hotbed of activity. Biosphere 2 was the largest completely sealed environment ever built. Its themed environments, or “biomes,” include living examples of the rainforest, the ocean, tropical wetlands, savannah grasslands, and a coastal fog desert. The original Biosphere is our own planet Earth.

During the late 1980s, Space Biosphere Ventures (the founding company behind Biosphere 2) conducted a series of small scale trials on sustainable living. When construction of Biosphere 2 was completed in 1989, the company began planning a long-term experiment to study everything they could about human survival in a sealed environment. They hoped to gather information during the “mission” that would help identify the effects humans had on their environment, and vice versa.

When the first Biosphere mission was announced in 1991, it made international headlines. Reporters and journalists from around the globe flocked to this otherwise barren patch of desert to witness history in the making. On the surface, television cameras were rolling as the first crew of eight Biospherians was sealed inside the habitat for a period of two years, from September 1991 to September 1993. Unfortunately, the goal of the Biosphere 2 mission was misunderstood or misinterpreted by many reporters of the press.

The point was not to simply remain sealed inside for two years as many people thought. The true goal of Biosphere 2 was to learn as much as possible about living in captivity, to learn about sustainable living, and to learn about small group dynamics. Could they grow enough food to survive? Was it possible to live in a sealed environment that long? Nobody knew for sure.

Conducting a full scale, two-year experiment was the best way to find out. There was more to it than just staying inside for two years. The purpose of Biosphere 2 could be stated more correctly as a long-term study in sustainable living.

To the chagrin of the Biospherians, living inside the sealed habitat proved to be much more difficult than originally thought. Sixteen months into the twenty-four month mission, oxygen levels inside the facility had dropped so low that additional oxygen needed to be pumped in. Difficulties in growing food forced the crew to open their reserve food supplies. Disagreements over the focus of the project caused the Biospherians to split into two separate groups which avoided each other, much like the tribes in William Golding’s classic novel “Lord of the Flies.” The experiment fulfilled its two-year goal, but the overall success of the mission was debated.

A second mission was announced in 1994 with a scheduled duration of ten months. That mission ended prematurely when disputes between the crew and the management erupted into hostility. Just a month into the second mission, the on-site management was removed by US Federal Marshals serving a restraining order on behalf of Biosphere 2’s owners. Four days later, disgruntled crew members sabotaged the project by opening the Biosphere and un-sealing the environment. Two months after that, Space Biosphere Ventures was officially dissolved as a company.

The unprecedented scientific experiment, once the darling of the press, was all of a sudden dead in the water. The forced removal of management by the military and the deliberate sabotage by the mission’s own crew members was very unbecoming of a scientific organization. A mass media feeding frenzy followed suit, and the project was ridiculed as a failure.

The news media went on to attack the credibility of the researchers, the Biospherians, the project managers, and the facility’s owners. Other scientific organizations would go so far as to denounce Biosphere 2 as nothing more than a publicity stunt, lacking in both scientific value and merit.

Critics of the Biosphere 2 project tell of its final days with the same familiar tone of mockery as the newspapers of the day. Magazines and newspapers ran articles from “experts” who spoke of Biosphere 2 as if it were doomed to fail from the start. They spoke as if the goal of sustainable living was too laughably fantastic to have ever been pursued by humanity. In the minds of naysayers, Biosphere 2 was nothing but an iconic landmark of early 90s pop culture, suitable only for pointing at and scoffing “That’s where science failed!” as they drive by.

The final nail in the coffin may have been the 1996 film “Bio Dome,” which starred Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin as two morons who accidentally get locked in a closed ecological system while ditching their environmentally-conscious girlfriends. In addition to being a box-office flop, the movie added to the public image of Biosphere 2 as a place where idiots with money carried out pseudo-experiments in a mockery of science. This is unfortunate because the movie has nothing to do with the true story of Biosphere 2 and was in fact filmed at a water treatment plant in California, nowhere near the real facility.

I don’t agree with the prevailing viewpoint that Biosphere 2 was a failure. In spite of the strange behavior of the Biospherians and the disagreements with management, I believe there is much that can be learned from the Biosphere 2 story. Whether or not they stayed sealed inside is irrelevant, because the overall goal was simply to learn as much as possible.

So what did we as humans learn from Biosphere 2? We learned that the only thing harder than designing sealed environments is living in them. Socially, we proved the “third quarter phenomenon” that any isolated group experiences its greatest levels of stress during the third quarter, regardless of the length of their confinement. Scientifically, much was learned about soil microbes, ants, bees, and other recurring sources of frustration during the missions.

We learned about the importance of leadership and good management, and the difficulty of keeping everyone focused on the same goal. Most of all, we learned that we’re not as ready as we thought we were to be living in closed environments for extended periods of time.

The tremendous value of this knowledge has been downplayed and overlooked by the naysayers of the Biosphere 2 project. With all of this in mind, what has become of Biosphere 2 today?

After the second experiment ended in 1994, New York-based Columbia University stepped in to run the show from 1995 to 2003. In 2003, the university ended its relationship with Decisions Investments Corporation who owned the property at the time. DIC put the property up for sale, and sold it in 2005 to CDO Ranching and Development for $50 million dollars. Rumors circulated about plans for luxury home lots and a resort, but those things have yet to materialize. In 2007, CDO began leasing the facility to the University of Arizona for a period of three years with the possibility of a ten year extension.

With that said, the days of human living experiments at Biosphere 2 appear to be gone for good. The facility is no longer sealed and no organizations have expressed an interest in further research of that nature. The future of Biosphere 2 remains bright though, and it has remained profitable as a tourist destination. For $20 dollars per person, visitors can take a guided walking tour through the rainforest, desert, and ocean biomes.

The University of Arizona has expanded the guided tour to include more of the facility than was ever publicly accessible in the past. Things start to get exciting when they lead you into the basement which is a labyrinthian maze of pipes, massive air conditioning units and submarine-style airtight doors. You can also stand inside the giant “lungs” that allowed the facility to stay pressurized in response to changes in the outside temperature. Thanks to tourism and private donations, Biosphere 2’s operating costs are covered well into the foreseeable future.

The public’s opinion of Biosphere 2 has been severely damaged by 20 years of misinformation, speculation, and rumors. There are many sources responsible for this including the multiple changes of ownership, “tell-all” books by former Biospherians, and the misleading or incomplete stories in the press. It is only when you peel back the many layers of misinformation that one discovers the true colors of Biosphere 2. It stands today not as an icon of failure, but as a monument to construction and engineering, to science, and to the unbridled ambition of the human spirit. In this light, Biosphere 2 was one heck of a successful failure.

Watch the video: The University of Arizona Biosphere 2 (July 2022).


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