A Biospherian's work is never done - The Explorer: Import

A Biospherian's work is never done

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Posted: Wednesday, June 29, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:49 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

June 29, 2005 - On a long-awaited summer day in 1991, eight red-suited researchers stepped ceremoniously into a glass mansion rising from the dusty floor of the Sonoran Desert.

The world waited, wide-eyed, for the unfolding story of what appeared to be no less than a prototype for a space station on Mars, complete with a million-gallon ocean, a lush rainforest and an assemblage of animals rivaling Noah's Ark.

For two years, the researchers would try to live inside Biosphere 2, a scaled-down version of Biosphere 1, also known as Planet Earth. No air would pass from one biosphere to the other.

The Washington Post Magazine had warned, the previous year, that the whole venture was so "confoundingly fantastic" that people were bound to misrepresent it either as "nothing less than a haute-science research blitz that could save the planet" or a mere glorified greenhouse.

In the punishing years that followed, the $200 million project was called everything from a profit-making theme park to a scientific crapshoot. It was mocked by scientists and media, alike.

Eventually, it was widely pronounced a failure.

If the original Biospherians had agreed with what they heard on the evening news, they might have slunk away from science and pursued second careers in low-profile fields.

Instead, all of them, with the exception of Roy Walford, who died in 2004 of Lou Gehrig's disease, are engaged in work directly related to Biosphere 2, today.

The glass mansion, itself, is facing an uncertain future as it awaits new owners who could turn it into anything from a religious school campus to an upscale resort. But the Biospherians are as fervent as ever about their original premise that the best way to learn about Earth is to create artificial Earth-like environments and see what happens to them.

"The beauty of the biosphere is that it generates questions," said Linda Leigh, an original Biospherian who lives in Oracle.

In recent years, the unconventional researchers have taken their work with artificial worlds as far as outer space. In the late 1990s, two original Biospherians based in Tucson used a tiny enclosed ecosystem to accomplish the first breeding of aquatic animals in space.

Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, through their company Paragon Space Development Corp., sealed glass bulbs containing crustaceons, aquatic plants, algae, microbes and water and secured them a spot in the Mir space station.

The creatures ate the plants and algae, breathed the oxygen they produced, exhaled carbon dioxide for the green things, and also had babies in their extremely pared-down versions of Biosphere 2.

"Because the system was closed, it didn't depend on the life support system of the space station," MacCallum said. "It could just sit there by itself."

The project revealed that gravity isn't a necessary ingredient for reproduction, MacCallum said, at least not for these crustaceans.

Now, the two Biospherians are working on a NASA project that aims to develop new technology for planning future exploration of Mars.

They are dreaming up designs for the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which NASA intends to use to replace the space shuttle. The plans would help crews stay alive on long missions to the Red Planet.

The work draws directly from Biosphere 2, MacCallum said, because it's about creating a complete system in which all the parts work for the good of the whole vehicle.

"It's a lot like an ecosystem," he said.

Given the media's collective buzz about Biosphere 2 during the 15 years since its first inhabitants sealed themselves in, one might be surprised to find any of the Biospherians working with a program as esteemed as NASA.

Back when the glass mansion was brand-new, though, the crew had widespread support for the creative adventure. Biosphere 2, a private project financed by Texas billionaire Edward Bass, won prime spots on magazine covers and in television lineups.

As the crew stepped into the airtight marvel's vacuum chamber, the world watched closely, fascinated with the peculiarities and the lessons of enclosed life.

The Biospherians, a collection of researchers who had been working on the project years before it became a reality, spent most of their waking life in the giant bubble performing hard labor.

They spent hours stooped over crops that they were planting and harvesting so they could eat and breathe. Tourists watched them through the glass walls like zoo-goers outside a monkey cage.

The Biospherians couldn't use pesticides in a closed system lest they end up drinking them in their morning coffee. They couldn't use toilet paper lest their home become a landfill. They intended their surrogate abode to be airtight for 100 years, so they needed to leave a legacy for those who would follow.

It was an engaging metaphor for treading lightly on the Earth, but within months the so-called planet in a bottle started attracting scorn.

An Economist article, written four months after the eight Biospherians entered their new environment, listed ways the project's managing company, Space Biospheres Ventures, was seemingly already departing from "the pure science it promised."

Biosphere 2, the article reported, was having to rely, for air quality, on a device that removed excess carbon dioxide from the air. In addition, the self-contained world had come equipped with a two-year supply of animal feed and a three-month supply of food.

One researcher had left Biosphere 2, the article pointed out, to bandage a cut finger in a hospital emergency room on Earth.

Despite the "futuristic vision" for the project, the article stated, "the reality has been more like a science fiction film in which the gizmos rust and the robot goes berserk."

In the book "Life Under Glass: The Inside Story of Biosphere 2," Biospherian authors wrote that the crew never intended for the ecosystem to work perfectly without modification and adaptations, and that even people building a city on Mars would have needed extra food to get started.

But that's not what the public thought it was getting. Biosphere 2 fans were expecting a completely sealed miniature world that would maintain the right balance of gases and would thrive for two years with no outside help.

When Space Biospheres Ventures ended up hiding examples of the crew's efforts to adapt, media sources started digging for biosphere dirt. Soon, the sensational story was out that two of the project's top managers had once belonged to a commune outside Santa Fe that feared ecological disaster.

Biosphere 2 scoffers acquired a new nickname for the futuristic glass dwelling: "Pantheon of New Age Flakiness."

When, toward the end of the two-year-experiment, conditions inside the bubble became dangerous, word began to spread that the experiment was failing.

The oxygen level dropped to 14 percent, which made life under glass something akin to life on a 17,000-foot mountain peak.

Nineteen of the 25 vertebrate species died off, and the Biospherians began struggling to accomplish a day's work. They started breathing in the middle of their sentences.

Eventually, they had to choose between pumping in oxygen and leaving the miniature world, so they pumped.

In 1996, an article in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution asserted that the original Biospherians' "artificial Eden (had) quickly succumbed to the same environmental ills that plague the earth itself."

An ecologist who was quoted in the article summed up his take on the lesson of the eventual imbalance of Biosphere 2, saying, "That should serve as a warning to those who think we can restore ecosystems on Earth once they have been dismembered."

Even though eight humans had managed to live and work in the miniature world a year and a half before additional oxygen was needed, many joined the ecologist in pronouncing the project a failure.

The original Biospherians never saw it that way - not the two Tucsonans who bred crustaceans in space, not four Biospherians who are part of a biosphere consortium based in Santa Fe, and not Leigh, who lives just miles north of Biosphere 2 and dedicates her days to sharing the project's lessons with the next generation.

"What we found is that it's possible to build a complex system and live in it for two years with people," Leigh said, explaining the success of the otherworldly experiment. "There were people who thought it would turn into a big ball of slime."

In the 13 years since Leigh left Biosphere 2, an ecosystem hinging on good oxygen production, she said she has never yet reverted to taking her air for granted. She tries to pass that mentality to her students.

In an idyllic expression of sustainable living, daycare children at the Aravaipa campus of Central Arizona College grow bean plants that eventually produce oxygen for tightly sealed structures that Leigh's science students build and then live in.

The structures are called biotubes, and one student at the college managed to stay in one for a record-breaking 24 hours. Without plants, the oxygen in the small space would have supported a human life for only three or four.

The biotube idea started on the property of Biosphere 2 during the nine-year era when Columbia University managed the glass mansion.

In 1994, the billionaire Bass cut short the facility's 100-year experiment by 97 years so the Ivy League school could reinvent the project and restore its scientific credibility.

Only six months after Space Biospheres Venture's second crew sealed itself into the world in a bottle, the plug was pulled, so to speak, and the dusty Sonoran Desert air rushed in.

Right away, Columbia University began partitioning the glass mansion with airtight plastic sheets so it could accommodate many experiments at once. Scientists and students arrived and took up residence in new, upscale dorms that Bass built.

Being an original Biospherian, Leigh was invited to give visiting students an intimate lesson about the history of the glass marvel in their midst.

The students built biotubes of lumber and plastic sheets - complete with crude restrooms - to recreate the Biosphere 2 experience of depending on homegrown plants for their oxygen.

At the Aravaipa campus of Leigh's most recent teaching post, about 30 miles from Biosphere 2, biotubes now form the core of the school's entire science curriculum. Leigh and Nicholas Yensen, a researcher who helped to plan Biosphere 2, use them to demonstrate the interdependence of every form of life on Earth.

"It's hard to think of the whole wide world and wrap your thoughts around how the globe will work," Leigh said. "If I put a biotube over me, it's a new way of thinking. We're breaking things down small enough to be able to start thinking about them."

Meanwhile, the remainder of the original Biospherian crew - Abigail Alling, Sally Silverstone, Mark van Thillo and Mark Nelson - has its sights set on the Red Planet.

The Santa Fe foursome, along with the core creative team responsible for Biosphere 2, is using a specially designed airtight chamber to experiment on plants that could be used in a future prototype of a space station on Mars. The collaborators call themselves the Biosphere Consortium.

Two Biospherians from the foursome have been invited to participate in send-off festivities in Japan in September, when humans take up residence in the Japanese Closed Ecology Experiment Facility, the Far East's version of Biosphere 2.

Given that the original Biospherians are still as impassioned about the world-in-a-bottle concept as they were back when the world was watching, some people may wonder why Biosphere 2 was long ago dismissed as a publicity stunt lacking the seriousness of real science.

MacCallum said he blames bad advertising.

"I think a lot of the media issues were essentially entirely because of the absolute incompetence of the public relations folks at the Biosphere," he said.

The truth behind the Biosphere 2 project, MacCallum said, was that eight people were stepping into a giant test tube for two years and didn't know what to expect.

The public story, though, was that the self-contained world was using new technology that had been thoroughly tested, and therefore, the two-year experiment with humans was bound to be, in MacCallum's words, "a joy ride."

That made the Biospherian uneasy.

"To my mind, we hadn't answered this fundamental question: Would it work? Will everything just die and turn to green slime? Is it possible to make a biosphere? Literally, I had a bet with people I could stay in for more than two weeks."

When problems inevitably arose, the management, which intended to make a profit from tourism in the future, kept secrets to avoid contradicting the public story, MacCallum said. That did not play well with the press.

"Either you have a project that is completely walled up, and 'we'll call you when we want to tell you something,' or you have complete transparency," MacCallum said. "Anything inbetween, and the media go bananas. They smell something is not right."

The media followed their collective nose.

"So then we're going to find out several people lived in a commune in Santa Fe, because it was the '70s," MacCallum said. "All kinds of stuff comes out."

Ironically, he said, the same problems that management tried to hide eventually won the Biospherians some credibility among scientists.

"When we began to realize we were losing oxygen and we didn't have the foggiest idea why, that's when the scientific community began to take us seriously," MacCallum said. "The idea was that this can't be a charade because these people are in there suffering."

Had the unknowns of Biosphere 2 been presented honestly from the beginning, MacCallum said, the world might now remember the project the way Biospherians do: as a great success that suggested people might one day be able to create worlds to live in.

Failure was not the only chapter in the big bubble's, story, though.

Columbia University did manage to bolster the reputation of Biosphere 2 with scientists and media, alike. Not only did the school attract 1,400 students to the site, it welcomed scientists from around the world who studied global warming and published more than 20 papers in scientific journals.

The (London) Guardian went so far, during the university's era, as to call Biosphere 2 "an incredible research tool."

The honeymoon ended, though, in 2003.

First, the prestigious school announced it was going to reduce funding for its futuristic learning center in the Sonoran Desert. Then, it cut ties to Biosphere 2 completely.

Administrators explained that the facility had not been built as a science lab and that it was producing too little research to justify the small fortune needed for running it. More to the point, some said, the school's new president and Earth Institute director just weren't as fired up about Biosphere 2 as their predecessors had been.

Three years into a 10-year contract to manage the giant terrarium, the university packed its belongings and left.

These days, the Biosphere 2 property looks more like an extra-terrestrial ghost town than a gathering place for world-class scientists.

Hot tourists trickle in from a near-empty parking lot, past abandoned dorms and a closed Biospherian food café, to hear glamorous stories of days gone by. The only research happening in the big bubble these days, tour guides say, is the work of engineers who are trying to lower the facility's electricity bills.

To Leigh, the glassed world's current career as a mere tourist attraction is a shame.

"It feels like what it's doing isn't big enough," she said.

But that sentiment is not new among Space Biospheres Ventures' original crew members. From the day the plug got pulled on their planet in a bottle, Biospherians have grieved the facility's fall to a lesser purpose. After all, Biosphere 2 was built to be a little world.

"I think its best and highest use is as a closed system," MacCallum said. "You may separate the agriculture area from the wilderness area and study them separately, but I think they should be studied as closed systems."

Research during the Columbia University era, Leigh said, had suggested that if Biosphere 2 had stayed closed it might have stabalized in 10 years, as excess carbon dioxide stimulated rapid growth of oxygen-producing plants.

"It could have reached the point where humans could have lived there," Leigh said.

Nelson agreed that Biosphere 2 should be used as a sealed laboratory, but he didn't appear pessimistic about the future of closed-system research. After all, he and his colleagues watch it happen every day.

"There is so much more we can learn from Biosphere 2 and its successors - and we will," he said. "Perhaps Biosphere 2 was ahead of its time."

The glass mansion is not a dilapidated relic of a glamorous past. Its billionaire owner has kept it in good condition, and it could be sealed up quickly.

The real concern, now, is that no one knows who its next owner will be. Biosphere 2's general manager, Christopher Bannon said he hopes to have news to share by mid-September, but for now inquiries are preliminary.

Leigh and other Biospherians said they just hope Biosphere 2 doesn't get plowed under or fall to ruins before its day can arrive.

"As long as it's not mothballed and torn down, I'm happy," she said. "As long as it stays standing, I'm not going to fret."

"The worst-case scenario," MacCallum said, "is that there's no way to fund it and that it gets plowed under. If it can't be used for its best and highest use, for financial reasons, the second best option is for its structure and form to stay there."

The original Biospherians hold out hope that the place they knew as home in the early 1990s, the place where they conducted their most imagination-stirring research, will exist long enough to one day resume its role as a closed system.

And maybe it will. While the original Biospherians have been quietly continuing their closed-system work in the years following their big experiment, the human-made ecosystem has been living on, as well. Its plant life, Bannon said, looks like a jungle compared with 15 years ago.

"The biosphere has its own life," Leigh said. "It's not going to die, or anything. It's just sitting there, waiting."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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