On September 26, 1991, four men and four women wearing astronaut-style jumpsuits locked themselves inside a futuristic research facility in Oracle, Arizona for what would be an unprecedented, two-year earth sciences experiment. Their mission was to assess whether human beings could survive an extended period of time within an artificially constructed, self-contained ecosystem – in the way future space travelers might live on Mars. The three-acre facility, named Biosphere 2, had been constructed over four years, beginning in 1987. It resembled a sprawling, nine-story, solarium and consisted of seven “biome” areas:
- a human habitat with living and working spaces
- a half-acre farm
- a rainforest
- a small “ocean” with a living coral reef
- a mangrove wetland
- a fog desert
- a savannah grassland
Biosphere 2 was stocked with thousands of plant and insect species, as well as a variety of agricultural animals including pigs, goats, hens and tilapia. The residents, known as “biospherians,” would survive within the air-tight ecosystem without the assistance of external resources or provisions. They were completely isolated from the outside world. It was, one might say, the greatest exercise in social distancing of all time.
Science or spectacle?
The experiment was the brainchild of John Allen, a trained metallurgist and Harvard MBA, who also happened to be the founder of a somewhat cultish organization called the Institute for Ecotechnics. Funded by billionaire oil heir Ed Bass, that group carried out a variety of international projects related to ecology, sustainable development, and space colonization prior to focusing their energy on Biosphere 2.
The two-year mission was widely covered in the media. The biospherians, most of whom had rather limited scientific experience, found themselves on the covers of newspapers and magazines, and on the most popular talk shows of the day. In a way, the closely scrutinized project was a predecessor of modern-day reality shows. Indeed, the original producers of the British show Big Brother cited Biosphere 2 as an inspiration.
In the end, the construction of the facility and execution of the two-year mission cost upwards of $200 million. The group was unable to remain isolated and self-sufficient for the entire duration of the project. One participant cut off the tip of her finger and had to be extracted temporarily for surgery. And they had to rely on a special machine called a “scrubber” in order to maintain safe carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. By the end of the mission, there was a schism among the biospherians. They broke into two four-person factions, hardly communicating with each other except to operate the facility and carry out experiments.
A mixed legacy
The media eagerly highlighted the foibles and failures of the mission. Time magazine classified it as one of the 100 worst ideas of the century. Critics poked holes in the integrity of the science underlying the design and execution of the endeavor. However, many scientists and researchers hold the Biosphere 2 project in high regard, pointing to the ambitiousness of the endeavor, the excitement for science it engendered, and the valuable data it produced. The biospherians were able to produce 80% of their own food over the two years, an unprecedented feat. They recycled their sewage and drank the same repurified water over and over again. The mission advanced understandings of closed ecological systems, human nutrition, and even ocean acidification. Today, the University of Arizona owns and operates the facility, using it for a variety of research and education purposes.
A documentary on Biosphere 2
In January 2020, filmmaker Matt Wolf premiered Spaceship Earth at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary combines present-day interviews with archival footage to tell the full story of Biosphere 2 – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Released by independent distributor Neon, the film is now available on Hulu and other streaming platforms.