Biosphere 2 crew will emerge today


September 26, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

ORACLE, Ariz. -- If God had been a Texas billionaire, the Garden of Eden might have looked like Biosphere 2 -- a wilderness under glass with a tiny ocean, where the chosen few can stroll to a desert, a tropical forest or a video conference center without leaving the house.

Exactly two years ago today, eight men and women locked themselves inside a glistening $150 million greenhouse, in an unprecedented experiment in human ecology: the development of a completely sealed, self-sustaining test-tube Earth.

Today, the so-called "Biospherians" will emerge in matching flight suits to the strains of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." The eight will have set a record for living in a closed system -- breaking one previously held by a team of Russian researchers.

The crew's stint as the fauna in the world's largest terrarium completes the shakedown cruise of what project officials say is an open-ended ecology experiment that will last a century, to investigate the processes that sustain life on Earth and the pollution that threatens it. Their findings also may aid the design of future space colonies. A new crew plans to seal itself in the Biosphere next year.

Nearly self-sufficient

Nestled in the high desert outside Tucson, the crew came close to their goal of complete self-sufficiency as they managed about 3,800 species of plants and animals in 3.15 acres of interconnected enclosures. They raised 88 percent of their own food, recycled all their waste and almost all their air and nurtured a self-sustaining ocean ecosystem, project officials said.

Funded largely by Houston oil billionaire Edward P. Bass, the controversial project was a jarring mixture of serious science and New Age eco-kitsch.

There are $13 guided tours of the grounds, and souvenir stands hawk $17 Bio-2 T-shirts, $42 Biosphere watches, cans of Rain Forest Crunch, bottled "Bio-water," and fabric globes called "Hugg-A-Planet." The site is surpassed only by the Grand Canyon as Arizona's most popular tourist attraction.

In the backdrop, the project has weathered charges that it is a hoax or the product of a religious cult obsessed with Mars, as well as considerable criticism over the absence of verifiable scientific controls.

In January, six months after formally raising concerns over the project's scientific credibility and project leaders' penchant for secrecy, the Biosphere board of outside science advisers resigned en masse.

When crew members do emerge today, they will be greeted by a crowd of enthusiasts and a wad of talk show invitations, including requests from "Nightline," "Good Morning America," "Donahue," "Maury Povich" and Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." Two speakers' bureaus have been hired, and a book is already in galleys.

The four men and four women will step into the limelight thinner, healthier, hungrier and, after two years in the half-light of their self-contained ecosystem, paler. While visitors can dine on lobster and leek bisque at the Biosphere Cafe, crew members have been living on a subsistence diet of about 2,200 calories a day.

Abigail Alling, 34, who tends the miniature Biosphere ocean, cheerfully confessed that she has been sustained by fantasies about her first post-Biosphere feast, "starting with a chilled glass of white wine, then bread, salad, the main course, cappuccino. . . ."

Gasping for air

The crew also may be dizzy when they step outside -- not from public attention, but from richer oxygen content and lower carbon dioxide levels in the air outside the habitat.

No sooner was the crew sealed inside its new world than the biosphere started evolving an atmosphere that readily supported life -- but not human beings, project scientists said.

Oxygen levels slowly dropped to about two-thirds the normal level found in air. By last January, the oxygen level had fallen below 14.5 percent -- about equal to the level found at an altitude of 13,400 feet. "Plants do very well at lower oxygen levels. We animals don't do so well," said Mark Nelson, the 46-year-old co-founder of the venture.

That's when project officials outside the Biosphere intervened. They pumped in new oxygen.

Perhaps the most significant achievement of Biosphere 2 is the engineering that isolates it. Two mammoth bellows-like lungs allow air inside to expand and contract without shattering the glass enclosure, as the internal temperatures shift from 65 to 95 degrees every day.

The building has an annual leak rate of less than 10 percent a year. By comparison, NASA's space shuttle, designed to sustain life in the near vacuum of space, leaks like a sieve -- 50 times the rate of the Biosphere.

Scientists skeptical

Some NASA scientists are skeptical. They want to see the hard data.

"The Biosphere is not what you can call controlled experimental research," said William Knott, chief of the biological sciences office at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, which researches self-replenishing habitats for astronauts.

Mr. Knott said he questioned the way Biosphere officials had calculated the leak rates and wondered whether such claims could be substantiated.

The ability to seal the world in a bottle is what makes the Biosphere 2 an important scientific tool, said the project's research director, John B. Corliss. For the first time, he said, scientists will be able to set up controlled experiments to explore the planet's complex ecology

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