The Strange (and Only Slightly Scientific) Story of Biosphere 2

Wednesday February 13, 2019 Written by Chris Harrigan

Bad news for anyone hoping to jettison Earth: Mars One, the private company that claimed it was working to send a bunch of regular humans (instead of, you know, specially trained astronauts) to the red planet has declared bankruptcy.

In light of this development, we thought we’d revisit a story from Smith Journal volume 22. Originally titled ‘People in Glass Houses’, it touches on the Mars One endeavour by way of the ill-fated Biosphere 2 project. The article was intended as a cautionary tale when we published it back in 2017. We’re a little glum – though not surprised – to see our scepticism play out.

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Bio G1 Photo: © CDO Ventures and the University of Arizona

In 2012, a Dutch company announced what might reasonably qualify as the most ambitious project in human history.

By the year 2024, Mars One would establish a permanent human colony on Mars, populated not by professional astronauts but by regular people who applied online, and financed, in part, by a reality TV show about the contestants’ new lives. More shocking still, the trip would be one-way.

Finding volunteers proved surprisingly easy. In just 12 months, Mars One claimed it received over 200,000 applications from people eager to spend the rest of their days on another planet. Of course, more technical problems remained: namely, how to keep the colonists alive once they got there. Even the biggest spaceship is too small to cart enough fuel, food, water and oxygen to handle a permanent resettlement. So any interplanetary pioneer would have to immediately create a new, fully self-sustainable ecosystem on their new home – a task even more challenging than getting them there in the first place.

Still, that challenge is not entirely without precedent. For guidance, the Mars One team could look back to another fantastical-seeming project, one that played out not on the red deserts of Mars, but those of Earth. When a group of eight men and women dressed in Star Trek-like jumpsuits shut themselves inside the world’s largest terrarium for two years, and lived – barely – to tell the tale.

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John Allen had been working on the idea for Biosphere 2 for years. An engineer with an interest in ecology, Allen longed to know whether it was possible to live in a man-made enclosure with no help from the rest of the world. Existing in such a hermetically sealed environment, he imagined, would provide invaluable information about how the Earth’s living systems interact with one another. He also had a more ambitious goal: to show how life on Earth – aka Biosphere 1 – might then be recreated on another planet, namely Mars.

And so, in 1987, with money donated by a wealthy friend, construction of a three-acre, nine-storey glasshouse began at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona. When the final geodesic panel was sealed into place four years later, Allen’s space-age ark was complete. It contained five distinct wilderness areas – a rainforest, ocean zone, wetland, savannah and desert – as well as an agricultural section for farming, populated by a small family of pygmy goats and other animals, and living quarters for the men and women who would come to call the place home.

The project instantly captured the public’s imagination. Discover magazine called Biosphere 2 “the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President Kennedy launched us toward the moon,” and the so-called biospherians became minor celebrities on the talk-show circuit. But by September 1991, when the group was finally sealed inside the enclosure, cracks had started to show. Reporters bristled when they were denied access to the facility, leading many to wonder if the biospherians had something to hide. It turns out they did.

The Village Voice was the first to cast doubts on the project’s scientific bona fides, claiming that the biospherians lacked scientific credentials and were, in fact, “recycled theatre performers”. The paper also made startling allegations about founder John Allen: that he was not simply an engineer with a passion for ecology, but the leader of an apocalyptic cult who believed the Earth was doomed. The Voice exposed Allen’s former life as “Johnny Dolphin”, an enigmatic playwright who established a commune on his Texas ranch, and taught his followers they could achieve “cosmic immortality” by colonising other planets. Many of these followers had allegedly joined Allen at the facility in Arizona, leading the paper to conclude that the biospherians were working not to try and save the Earth, but rather to abandon it and repopulate the solar system in their own New Age image.

The allegations cast a pall over the project, and it didn’t take long for more corrosive rumours to surface. Just 12 days after entering the enclosure, a biospherian named Jayne Poynter injured herself while using a rice-thresher. She left the enclosure for medical treatment, and returned less than seven hours later with a small bag. At the time, Poynter claimed the bag was merely full of drawings, but the media argued it was filled with supplies and spare parts – negating the project’s stated aim of total self-sufficiency. Home videos taken by the biospherians were regularly broadcast on the nightly news, showing the team feasting over large communal meals.

But these turned out to be more subterfuge: in reality, the group had grown gaunt and pale after failing to grow enough food on the farm (Poynter herself had turned orange from eating too much sweet potato), and had to supplement their meals with grains and beans from their seed stock. Meanwhile, the fish and insects that also called Biosphere 2 home began dying, while ants and cockroaches took over the enclosure.

A bigger problem loomed: the biospherians were slowly suffocating. The rainforest zone wasn’t generating as much oxygen as expected, and carbon dioxide levels were dangerously high. To avert disaster, a CO2 scrubber that had been secretly installed during construction was turned on, and 23 tonnes of pure oxygen were injected into the dome. To make matters worse, the biospherians had started squabbling among themselves, and eventually split into two warring factions. “We suffocated, starved and went mad,” Poynter would later admit. By the time the group re-emerged in 1993, the two sides had stopped speaking to one another.

A second batch of biospherians was already lined up to take the next shift (Allen had envisaged Biosphere 2 running for over 100 years), but problems outside the facility had begun to affect those inside it. The project had run into massive debt during its first two years. To steer the ship back from financial ruin, a little-known investment banker named Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon) was brought in. Bannon tried to trim fat from the project, but his ruthless managerial style wasn’t enough to keep the company going. Less than five months after the second mission began, management announced it would no longer conduct manned assignments. The remaining biospherians disbanded, John Allen returned to his ranch in Texas, and the enclosure was eventually sold off to the University of Arizona.

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As an experiment in self-sufficiency, Biosphere 2 was a failure. But it wasn’t completely without merit. Stripped of its interplanetary bluster and filled with actual scientists, the enclosure has gone on to become the largest earth sciences lab on the planet – and an invaluable tool in the fight against climate change. Researchers at the University of Arizona can now manipulate the temperature, humidity and rainfall in each of the facility’s wilderness zones and observe how different ecosystems respond to different conditions. Most of what we know about how coral reefs respond to ocean acidification, for instance, was gleaned during experiments in Biosphere 2’s ocean.

But if Biosphere 2 was unable to keep eight people alive on Earth, it seems unlikely things will fare much better for anyone trying to spend a lifetime on Mars. Any Martian habitat would likely rely on solar power for its energy – which is one thing if you’re in Arizona, but another altogether on Mars, where the sky is periodically shrouded in sun-blocking dust storms. Furthermore, a recent MIT study concluded that the level of oxygen required to grow plants on Mars would quickly turn the habitat into a serious fire hazard and cause the colonists to asphyxiate. The original biospherians were able to pump in emergency supplies of oxygen when they started suffocating; Martians would have to wait a full nine months for supplies to arrive.

In this way, Biosphere 2 is perhaps best read as an example of what not to do – and it’s possible that not doing anything might be the take-home message. In the years since it was first announced, the Mars One voyage has been repeatedly delayed, and journalists have started questioning its premise the same way they once did with Biosphere 2. In 2014, Australian reporter Elmo Keep revealed that the organisation had virtually no money, no TV deal, and no contract with any aerospace suppliers to deliver a ship. Mars One was, in other words, a Biosphere 2 for the modern age – a bold, beautiful plan, but one built on dreams rather than science. Life in a glasshouse – either here or on other planets – remains a fantasy for the time being.

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This article was published in Smith Journal volume 22 with the title 'People in Glass Houses'.