It was the best of science. It was the worst of science.
Emerging at the end of the 80’s as an experimental approach to building the future, Biosphere 2 burst on the scene as a full-blown phenomenon, an ambitious adventure in living in the future. I recall the general feeling of excitement in the press as well as among many people, including me. I had lived through the early days of space travel and our flights to the moon and back and I never lost my sense of awe.
Once again, it felt like we really were about to “boldly go where no man has ever gone before,” as Star Trek had taught us to say. This time, though, the world of the future was right here on Earth and our explorers were modern-day humans. This time, it was a human-designed self-contained environment, an attempt to replicate in miniature the self-sustaining miracle of our own Earth’s living, interconnected systems. They spoke of how space colonizers traveling to distant worlds would need to live in similar self-contained worlds.
Journalists of the day waxed rhapsodic about the idea:
“…a miniature world, a wholly enclosed planetoid spanning 3.15 acres, complete with rain forest, ocean, marsh, savanna, desert, farm and human habitat…”
— Washington Post
“…largest self-sustaining closed ecosystem, an adventurous bid to learn more about the workings of the Earth’s environment and a prototype for human colonies in space…’
— New Scientist
“…may have been the boldest human adventure since the manned moon landing.”
By the time the self-titled Biospherians entered their self-made mini-world on Sept. 26 1991, Biosphere buzz greatly exceeded what anyone really knew about it. Speculation from afar combined with tightly-held secrecy among the Biosphere development team spun fantastic tales of planning for future space colonization to surviving any earthbound apocalypse in an isolated, self-sustaining environment with a small but hardy crew of earnest explorers.
The recent documentary, “Spaceship Earth” (available on Hulu), examines the Biosphere 2 phenomenon. The documentary not only brought back the memories of that time to me, it filled in details about the origin of the project, the people involved, the experience itself and the ignominious ending of the original experiment. There were revelations from the film from start to finish that I had been unaware of.
I had known nothing of the background of the people behind the project. Calling themselves synergists, they had been living, working and playing together for years in increasingly more complex projects involving sustainability and self-reliability. Meeting first in San Francisco, they moved to a ranch in New Mexico to learn more living in closer alignment with the land. A few years later, they moved back to the Bay area and built their own ocean-going boat and sailed it around the world. Biosphere 2 grew out of their previous experiences and adventures and from the fertile mind of their charismatic leader, John Allen.
As much as the planned project captured the imagination of many, not everyone supported the concept. Scientific skeptics pointed out issues with their protocols, insisting it could never be considered either an actual experiment. In fact, some argued it could not even be considered science. Serious questions had already been raised in certain circles of the scientific community before the Biospherians ever locked themselves in.
Then, “irregularities” occurred. When Judy Poynter seriously injured her finger, she left the Biosphere for emergency surgery. The project team said she would take nothing out of or in to the sealed Biosphere— but she brought back in some badly needed computer parts. The later revelation of the existence of a previously undisclosed CO² “scrubber” to help with air purification brought increased skepticism and scrutiny about the whole effort.
This would lead to the establishment of an outside panel of scientific experts to examine the science involved in the project. The Biosphere 2 Science Advisory Committee, headed by Tom Lovejoy of the Smithsonian Institute, was established in spring 1992 with an eye to examine the project to increase the legitimacy of any scientific findings as well as the integrity of the project itself.
And this was when I played a minor role in the by-then-ongoing controversy surrounding Biosphere: advising my UT graduate advisor about her joining the Smithsonian’s scientific advisory committee examining Biosphere’s scientific mission.
But that will take some explaining.
To be continued…