Biosphere inhabitants set to end mission Normal life nears after 2-year stint

September 02, 1993|By Phoenix Gazette

PHOENIX -- Biosphere 2 co-captain Mark Van Thillo is dreaming of the Snickers cheesecake his friend has promised him.

Team physician Roy Walford is planning a future as a performance artist.

With less than a month before they leave Biosphere, eight volunteers who sealed themselves off from the outside world are making plans to resume normal lives, according to two of the crew who granted a telephone interview yesterday.

On Sept. 26, seven of the crew members are to step into Earth's atmosphere for the first time in two years, completing their mission within the huge steel and glass structure in the Arizona desert, although one member left briefly for medical care.

What have they missed most while setting a record for time within a closed life-support system?

"I miss a good glass of red wine," said Mr. Van Thillo, 32, the team's computer whiz. "I haven't been able to listen to much live music in here. Only the stuff some of my teammates have been composing."

Dr. Walford, a pathologist from the University of Southern California who is best known for his work on extending the human lifespan with low-calorie diets, has developed a fascination for performance art.

He has been corresponding with Barbara Smith, a California performance artist with whom he plans to produce the "21st Century Odyssey" based on his habitat experiences.

Dr. Walford also has become a composer within Biosphere, adding lyrics to sounds recorded by Biospherians Taber McCallum and Jayne Poynter.

The two have produced an electronically synthesized version of sounds made by some of the 3,800 plant and animal species they have lived alongside, including the background sounds of the habitat's simulated ocean, waterfall and rain.

Asked whether he felt healthy and rested, Dr. Walford, 69, said he hadn't had any trouble sleeping since January, when oxygen was pumped into the habitat.

Biosphere officials announced last week they planned to add additional oxygen to the sealed habitat during the next few weeks to protect researchers who will be entering after the volunteers leave. Otherwise they would experience a drop in oxygen equivalent to a 5,000-foot altitude change.

"I'm healthy, but I can't say I'm rested," Dr. Walford said. "I've been doing a great deal of work, and it's gotten harder as we approach the end. We're all putting in 50- and 55-hour work weeks.

"I'm looking forward to a glass of good scotch when I get out of here."

It hasn't all been hard work.

Although he hasn't formed any romantic attachments, Dr. Walford said he had made friends he expects to keep for life.

Mr. Van Thillo said he had become bored within the sensory confines of Biosphere and couldn't wait to leave.

"I'd do it again in a minute, make no mistake," the electronics and computer expert said. "But after seeing the same people day after day and the same surroundings, it gets trying . . . .

"That's one thing NASA should take a lesson from. I would never go out into space without my friends. That's something I've learned in here."

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