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Photos courtesy Biosphere 2

Built on over three-acres, Biosphere 2 housed five mini ecosystems including a tropical rain forest, costal fog desert, a savannah, a wetland and even a 25-foot deep ocean. With a size comparable to two-and-a-half football fields, it remains the largest closed ecosystem ever created.

Jane Poynter was one of the original inhabitants of Biosphere 2. During the two-year experiment, she and fellow biospherian Taber MacCallum fell in love and later wed. The couple currently resides in Tucson.

The eight scientists—four men and four women—entered Biosphere 2 on September 26, 1991. The crew were: Roy Walford, Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo and Linda Leigh.

During their two year mission, the eight inhabitants of Biosphere 2 experienced oxygen deprivation and extreme weight loss due to the lack of food. Their physician, Roy Walford, is pictured here conducting a medical examination on a member of the crew.

Published by Times Publications, September 2011

If they were to repeat the mission today, it would surely be made into the best reality TV show. Ever.

Consider the premise: Eight adventurers, four men and four women, are locked away together in a giant hermetically-sealed dome in the Arizona desert for two full years. Inside the sprawling three-acre terrarium, five mini ecosystems — a tropical rain forest, a coastal fog desert, a savannah, a wetland, and even a 25-foot-deep ocean, complete with its own coral reef — await their inhabitance, along with nearly 4,000 species of plants and animals, including goats and some miniature pigs they’ll have to depend on for food.

For the next two seasons — um, years — nothing goes in or out of the elaborate human Habitrail. All food, water, even air, is produced inside the dome and shared by the same intimate group. “We’ve got four men and four women, all single and healthy,” promises the expedition’s co-captain and “food systems manager,” 36-year-old Sally Silverstone, upon entering the giant greenhouse back in 1991. “So I don’t think you can discount the possibility of sexual encounters!”

If they had only allowed television cameras into the dome, the mission could have beat Survivor to the punch, which sparked about nine years of a reality TV challenge phenomenon. The eight members eventually split into two battling gangs of four, and at least one romantic relationship blossomed under the glass: less than a year following the mission, crew members Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum would wed on the lawn outside the habitat. It could have been a network ratings bonanza.

Instead, the bold “Human Experiment” inside Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona, which this month celebrates the 20th anniversary of its launch, wound up getting mostly mocked by the press and ended up spawning a Pauly Shore movie, Bio-Dome.

To be fair, some of the Biospherians actually liked the 1996 flick, a comedy that paired the then-hot MTV star with a dreadlocked Stephen Baldwin as a pair of stoners who mistakenly end up locked inside the structure with the flustered science geeks and immediately proceed to cause never-ending trouble in the bubble.

MacCallum, who attended the Tucson premiere of the movie with Poynter, recalls they were about the only two people laughing in the theater.

“Jane and I were just apoplectic with laughter,” says MacCallum, who today along with Poynter runs Paragon Space Development Corp., a Tucson company which has supplied miniature ecosystems to the International Space Station and Mir. “It was so funny to us, because they did get a lot of things right, from the Texas billionaire [a poke at Edward P. Bass, the oil tycoon who poured the initial $150 million into the project and recently pumped another $20 million into its maintenance] to the scene in the nitrous oxide room.” MacCallum doubles up again, recalling the moment Shore and Baldwin discover a canister of laughing gas in a store room. “They must have heard a few inside stories,” he confesses.

“It was a terrible movie, but we were laughing up a storm. The review the next day on the AP wire read, ‘Those poor Biospherians — they must have been oxygen deprived!’”

MacCallum says there would have been a much better story, however, if the screenwriters had actually talked to the crewmembers, almost all of whom — including Poynter — have since authored books on their domed-up experiences. Unfortunately, most of what went on inside the Biosphere, including the much-reported oxygen boost that was required from the outside to sustain the so-called self-sustaining village, was, at the time, shrouded in an unnecessary and, MacCallum feels, a damaging veil of secrecy.

“They were sort of halfway between wanting the limelight but then not willing to say what’s going on,” says MacCallum, recalling how the Biosphere’s leaders went from actively courting the media to sloppily covering up problems and setbacks. “People found out about the oxygen loss a long time after we had discovered it. If we had just been more transparent and said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing: we need to add more oxygen to get the levels back up,’ that would have been fine.” Instead, according to Poynter’s memoir, team leaders manipulated data points to give the Science Advisory Committee an unrealistically rosy progress report.

It was this “tyranny of the Biospheric Ideal of Perfect Material Closure,” as Poynter calls it, that eventually divided the team and tarnished the experiment in the eyes of the international science community. “Their logic was based on symbolism, not science,” she writes of the four members she and MacCallum would come to call Them. “We were running a scientific experiment, not an exercise in survival.”

In the end, all the mean-nerd infighting even soured the lessons in environmentalism and sustainability the mission was intended to demonstrate for the Biospherians themselves. MacCallum says that upon leaving the Biosphere, the first thing he and Jane wanted to do was hit a grocery store.

“I had grown accustomed to it taking four months to make a pizza,” says MacCallum, with another hearty laugh. “You know: you milk the goats, you make the cheese, you harvest the wheat. I mean, this is a long process! All of a sudden we’re standing in this store and there’s wines from Argentina, cheese from France, cured meats from Italy. All for the taking! We thought, ‘This is the amazing environment to live in!’”

Serious Science

If some of Biosphere 2’s current administrators had their way, nobody would ever ask any more questions about sweet potatoes turning Biospherians orange.

“We can’t hide from the past,” says Hassan Hijazi, director of external affairs for Biosphere 2, which officially became the property of the University of Arizona on July 1, four years after taking over the management of the facility previously helmed by Columbia University, which had used it for ecological research from 1995 to 2003.

“The past is still part of what we do in our tours, and a lot of people are interested in that,” Hijazi says. “But what we’re doing here now is real science.”

Pierre Meystre, director of the B2 Institute, which brings in scientists from around the world to utilize the one-of-a-kind facility, agrees.

“A lot of the science that was done in the early days of Biosphere 2 was not very serious,” he says. Even the name (Biosphere 1 is the Earth, get it?) was an unfortunately “inside” science geek joke. “For a while the name had a bad reputation. We even had a discussion over whether we should change it.” Columbia, during its management phase, had taken to calling it B2, hoping to de-emphasize its odd legacy in the same way KFC began downplaying its middle name when fried food fell out of favor. “But it’s such a well-known place, we decided we’d keep the name and just make sure the science is good and speaks for itself.”

So far, the science coming out of the U of A-run Biosphere 2 has been doing just that. Hijazi says National Geographic and Science magazine have written favorably about the U of A’s takeover, and he cites the university’s collaboration with the Sultan of Oman to build a water system modeled after that country’s centuries-old “falaj” irrigation channeling, which can distribute spring water throughout the desert, as an example of the facility’s new global reach. “The system is very simple yet very sustainable,” Hijazi says, “and could be used anywhere in the world.”

Additionally, even the experiments of the original Biospherians have been enjoying some revisionist respect in recent years. A 2009 feature in Wired countered the perception that Biosphere 2 was a $200 million bust, citing its agricultural system (“the most productive half-acre of land in farming history”), its bioregenerative wastewater recycling and even its famous challenges with oxygen dynamics — still 30 times tighter than NASA’s seal on the space shuttle — as major advances that spurred other important science.

“It was very interesting going to NASA after we came out and relaying that the oxygen had been extracted by the concrete and seeing these designers of habitats for space going, ‘Omigosh, I’m glad we don’t have to make that mistake ourselves!’” says MacCallum. “They actually learned a few things from us.”

Meystre says the U of A has no plans to attempt another closed-system Biospherian mission, stressing the school’s focus on keeping the facility open to the public. Certainly the $20 tours, conducted every day of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, bring in considerable revenue, last year hosting more than 100,000 visitors, according to Meystre. But the university has also instituted a strong STEM educational program there, attracting young students who’ve never seen Bio-Dome but who have plenty of concerns about where their planet is headed.

“The majority of people who come to the Biosphere are parents bringing their kids or teachers bringing their students,” adds Hijazi. “And when they leave it, the kids talk about how the experience changed the way they look at our Earth. This generation is very interested in sustainability and how to protect the world around them. They get it.”

Think Different

Steve DeLong is still new enough on the Biosphere 2 research faculty to appreciate both the groundbreaking new science being conducted there as well as its colorful past.

A former postdoctoral fellow at the US Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center in Menlo Park, Calif., DeLong was brought onboard in March 2010 as lead scientist of the Biosphere 2’s Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO. As the university’s flagship project as new owners of the facility, LEO will segment the half-acre greenhouse once used by the Biospherians for farming into three different landscapes where scientists will study how water, soil and atmosphere are affected by climate change. This latest addition, which DeLong likens to a trio of indoor mountain ranges, is scheduled to be unveiled on Earth Day 2012.

It’s the kind of grand-scale marriage of lab science and field study that could only be done at the Biosphere, and DeLong says the university’s entire scientific community has been lining up to use it.

“There’s no other facility like it in the world, in terms of a huge climate-controlled facility where you can sort of do whatever you want,” he says. “You can simulate droughts, heat waves, cold snaps, intense raining periods. You can do all these things in this large spatial scale. So you can really do big things there.”

Certainly the U of A chemists, microbiologists, ecologists and atmospheric scientists utilizing Biosphere 2 today are a far cry from its original founders. The brainchild of the Yale-educated Bass, heir to his family’s oil fortune, and John Allen, leader of a counterculture commune in New Mexico called the Synergia Ranch, Biosphere 2 was originally built as a combination Earth-bound space station, where inhabitants could model building human settlements on the moon and Mars, and an elaborate fall-out shelter, where “higher forms of life,” as Allen wrote in a 1985 publication, could survive a kind of 2012 doomsday scenario. The Biospherian mission, led by Allen, was an attempt to gain some legitimate science cred for the camp.

Wacky, yes. But DeLong asserts there never would have been this enormously useful greenhouse in the desert were it not for the crazy visions of some bonafide eccentrics.

“It was far out!” the biologist concedes, with a laugh. “But they created a remarkable physical thing here. And we have those original people to thank for it.”

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