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Biosphere 2

It looks like a 1960s encyclopedia illustration depicting a colony on Mars in 1985. And, in part, that's what it was. Built to demonstrate the viability of an isolated, self-sustaining ecosystem, one of its original goals was to help in developing interplanetary outposts. What it turned out to be was more like a soap opera under glass.

The experiment was named Biosphere 2 in recognition of the "original" biosphere, Earth. It was conceived by John Allen, a dominant member of a New Mexico commune with ideas of developing an autonomous refuge from impending global doom.

Allen envisioned a glass-enclosed habitat in which plants and animals would live in symbiosis, completely sealed off from their environment, providing for all the needs of their human caretakers. In essence, a giant people terrarium.

The focal point of the project would be a 7.2 million-cubic-foot, glass and space-frame laboratory comprising crew quarters, an enormous vegetable garden and five distinct biomes: a desert, a rainforest, a savannah, a marsh and a 900,000-gallon ocean with artificial reef. It would all be quarantined from the outside world by individually sealing every one of its 6,500 three-layer windowpanes with double applications of caulk. The desert-bound ark, literally more airtight than the Space Shuttle, would then be stocked with 3,800 species of plants and animals. A highly intricate, computer-controlled infrastructure would regulate and monitor all environmental functions like air pressure and precipitation. It would be a gleaming-white cathedral of ecology.

Largely bankrolled by a Texas billionaire named Edward Bass, construction on the facility began in 1987 at a cost of $200 million. It was managed by Space Biospheres Ventures, a subsidiary of the Institute of Ecotechnics, companies whose names bring to mind subversive mining corporations in an under-budget space odyssey. And when Biosphere 2 was finished, it looked like the sort of place they would be headquartered — a shining, futuristic, autonomous compound in the middle of the desert. Actually, it's a surprise the place was never used as a den of villainy in some James Bond movie.

Following completion, Biosphere 2 launched its first mission. On Sept. 26, 1991, four men and four women, dressed to look something like interstellar rent-a-cops, voluntarily entered the 'Sphere to begin two years of self-supporting isolation. As crowds cheered and cameras flashed, uniformed Wells Fargo guards sealed the eight scientists inside. A Crow Indian chanted and a Tibetan monk blessed the crew. There was a catered party with lasers and fireworks.

Over the next 24 months, the eight Biospherians were watched like pets in a human Habitrail. As they lived and worked inside their glass house, tourists peered curiously through the windows––interested, of course, less in the science than in what kind of sexcapades were going on inside. Unfortunately, things on the other side of the glass weren't nearly that pleasant.

Problems surfaced quickly. Fish, too many in number, began to die off, reportedly clogging the ocean's filtration system. Rapidly growing morning-glory vines threatened to choke the rainforest. Condensation was overly watering the desert. Plus, greenhouse-variety "crazy ants" infested everything. Cockroaches, too.

In addition, El Niño brought unusually cloudy weather, inhibiting plant growth and, subsequently, food production. Some Biospherians allegedly began hoarding and stealing food. It was reported that one crewmember was threatened to have her employment terminated when she revealed to the public they were dipping into secret food stocks.

Then, on top of starvation, came asphyxiation. Halfway through the experiment, oxygen levels in the 'Sphere's air had dropped from a normal 21% mixture down to 14%. Simple chores were leaving the Biospherians out of breath. Some were having trouble sleeping and were forced to use oxygen bottles. As they would later discover, the overly rich soil used in the project caused an explosion of oxygen-depleting bacteria. Eventually, project managers were forced to pump in oxygen from the outside.

By the end, Arizona's little Sim City was a virtual disaster. When the crew emerged, they had lost, on average, 15% of their body weight. The ocean had become acidic, the air polluted. Temperature control was a mess. As for the animals, 19 of the 25 vertebrate species had gone extinct.

Then came the rumors. It was said that, while inside, the Biospherians quickly split into two rival factions. Working together had become impossible. Allegedly, they still won't talk to each other. It was supposedly due in large part to cultism. Apparently, the whole project had been set up as part of a following under founder John Allen, who — mentioned for the sole reason that it's funny––wrote books under the pen name Johnny Dolphin. The cultists called themselves "synergists" and built the 'Sphere as a "synergia."

Less than six months after the end of the first mission, management made a second attempt to man the 'Sphere. This time, it would be five men and two women (one of whom had answered an anonymous want ad announcing a position for a greenhouse gardener). Crewmembers would be replaced at varying intervals, performing research continuously for the next 100 years. Emphasis would be placed on science rather than survival.

But that's when things really started to shake up. Financier Edward Bass ousted the project's management team less than a month into the new mission. In retaliation, two former Biospherians attempted to sabotage the project by opening the 'Sphere's doors and breaking several windows. The mission continued as normal, but was terminated just a few months later after new management reevaluated Biosphere 2's purpose. They were converting it to an open research facility.

From there, things went fairly smoothly until––get this––the compound mysteriously accumulated dangerous levels of nitrous oxide. That's right, kids. Laughing gas. That's when management decided to, in their words, hit the reset button. In 1995, they cycled out all the air and replaced the soil and water. The facility was then leased out to Columbia University for student education and legitimate research. Tourism became a major focus, as well, especially in 2000 when the biomes were finally opened to the public. (The airtight seal was no longer a concern, which was good, because the ants had burrowed through the caulking long ago.)

Things were looking up for Biosphere 2. It was finally becoming a respected research facility, as well as a popular tourist attraction. That is, until Columbia backed out of their lease in 2003 and cut off all funding. Research came to a halt. Tours continued, but it wasn't enough to pay for the upkeep. Finally, Ed Bass was forced to put the place up for sale.

In February 2006, someone agreed to buy the property. Bass had hoped to draw scientific interests, but it looks as though the whole deal will go to a housing developer. As this book is being written, it seems Biosphere 2 will become a closer reflection of Earth's environmental processes than originally intended, as it may be torn down in favor of an upscale housing community.

Weird Arizona


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