_The Arizona Daily Star_ (Tucson), Sunday, September 19, 1993, pp. 1A,12A Biosphere 2's im
_The Arizona Daily Star_ (Tucson), Sunday, September 19, 1993, pp. 1A,12A
Biosphere 2's imperfect mission
Imports may tarnish project's successes
By Jim Erickson
The Arizona Daily Star
In the latest edition of the Biosphere 2 quarterly newsletter, research
director John B. Corliss recalls the night last January when oxygen was
injected into the 3.15-acre terrarium from a tanker truck.
Oxygen levels had been dropping gradually but relentlessly since the
two-year experiment began on Sept. 26, 1991, and the eight crew members
reported sleep problems and nearly constant fatigue.
Around midnight on that cold January night, while vapors rose from the
liquid oxygen truck outside the glass-and-steel structure near Oracle, the
crew gathered around the injection port to breathe the oxygen-rich air.
"It was a time of sadness for the biospherians, in a way, because the
goal they had set for themselves was perfection--absolutely no replenishment
from the outside world," Corliss wrote.
If zero replenishment is considered perfection for Biosphere 2, then the
two-year maiden voyage, which ends next Sunday, was an extremely imperfect
Biosphere 2's airlock doors opened 27 times during the 24-month "closure,"
and *thousands* of items were brought inside the "sealed" miniworld. Among
them: 40 pounds of peanut seed, Sominex and Vivarin, vitamins for the crew,
makeup, mouse traps, a welding torch, 11 pounds of protein powder, spare
parts and tools, predatory insects for the farm, a computer, a professional
video camera, radios, telephones and a blender.
A complete list of the items that entered Biosphere 2 was obtained by
The Arizona Daily Star from Space Biospheres Ventures, the company that
built and operates the $150 million tourism and research complex.
The airlock is to be unsealed for the 28th time on Wednesday, when research
samples will be removed from Biosphere 2 and supplies will be sent inside.
These exchanges began in July 1992 and have occurred at least twice a
month since last November.
They have become so routine that they are, in fact, referred to as
"routine import/exports" by Space Biospheres Ventures.
Exchanges redefined project
Though the exchanges have become commonplace, they have redefined a
project that used to be billed by the company as "the largest airtight,
self-sustaining, life-support system ever built." Given the oxygen
injections and the truckloads of supplies that have entered the big
greenhouse, no one can argue that Biosphere 2 is a completely
Well, most people wouldn't try to make that argument.
"We have achieved self-sustainability," Corliss said in an interview
Friday. "I'm saying that because we are so close to it that we are
confident we'll be able to achieve it. As far as I'm concerned, our
goals have been marvelously achieved."
But the repeated imports seem to take the shine off some of the chief
accomplishments of the first two years, achievements that will be
trumpeted by Space Biospheres Ventures in the days leading up to
"re-entry into Biosphere 1":
* *The system operated for two years with no major breakdowns.*
Broken equipment was sent out for repair, and replacements were
brought in for equipment that could not be repaired. Motors, valves,
pumps, sensors, circuit boards, switches, spools of wire, fans and
filters were taken in, along wth tools needed to install them.
The world will never know what would have happened without this
* *Crew members fed themselves with food grown on a half-acre farm,
without pesticides and despite two very cloudy winters.*
True, but they started with a three-month supply of food, then
imported tens of thousands of predatory insects to save pest-ravaged
crops. They imported tomato, cucumber, squash, lettuce, millet and
bean seeds, and 40 pounds of peanut seeds. They brought in 240 liters
of horticultural oil, vitamins, 11 pounds of protein powder for the
crew and irrigation equipment.
* *A healthy atmosphere was maintained with no buildup of harmful
A healthy atmosphere was maintained by injecting oxygen twice--once in
January and again this month--and by removing excess carbon dioxide with
a mechanical recycler. The recycler broke down after the first winter,
but replacement parts were brought in from the outside.
Original goals were modified
The biospherians used to be fond of saying that only information and
energy--information in the form of electronic signals and energy in the
form of electricity and sunshines--would enter Biosphere 2 during the
Things haven't worked out that way, but Corliss said the company now
tries to limit imports to items that are "information-rich."
"What we try to do is only transfer information across the boundary,"
While he could not define an "information-rich" object, he provided
a few examples: seeds for different agricultural crops, insect pests,
computer boards and a pump.
"When you send in predatory insects, you're sending in genetic
information along with the bug," he said. "A pump is really information-rich
if it's gone, and a board for a computer is an information-rich piece of
Corliss insisted that "nothing has been imported that was vital to the
project, without which we would not have reached the two-year goal."
What about the armies of predatory insects and the seed?
"Whether they made a difference, I don't know," he said. "We might
have had to import food, I don't know."
The "routine import/exports" began seven days after Biosphere 2's
now-defunct scientific advisory committee released its assessment of the
project's research program in July 1992.
Until the report came out, the airlock doors had remained shut--except
on Oct. 11, 1991, when crew member Jane Poynter left for finger surgery
and returned later in the day with a duffel bag containing supplies.
The scientific advisory committee, headed by Smithsonian Institution
biologist Thomas E. Lovejoy, concluded that the Biosphere 2 research
effort was plagued by poorly defined goals, excessive secrecy and a lack
of qualified personnel. Those findings led to the hiring of Corliss, an
oceanographer who headed the 1977 diving expedition that discovered an
abundance of exotic animal life in 8,000-foot waters off the Galapagos
The Lovejoy committee also stated that the desire to maintain complete
closure of Biosphere 2 had unnecessarily restricted the export of research
samples and the import of necessary scientific equipment and new species
of plants and animals.
"This project does't need to get caught up in an overly mythical
belief in total, inviolate closure," Lovejoy said when the report was
released. The doors opened a week later.
But total, inviolate closure is what Space Biospheres Ventures promised
in the mid 1980s, when Biosphere 2 was still just a gleam in Ed Bass' eye.
Bass, a Texas billionaire and self-styled "ecopreneur," bankrolled the
Biosphere 2 project.
Inviolate closure was how Biosphere 2 was sold to the public. Sure,
Space Biospheres Ventures also said that Biosphere 2 would be used to
study biogeochemical cycling, but most people didn't understand or care
What captured the public's imagination was the idea that eight people
would try to survive two years under glass, cut off from the outside
world, raising crops, butchering pigs and breathing oxygen supplied by
the greenery. Biosphere 2 would be a "materially closed" ecological
system, the company pledged.
"The initial full closure of Biosphere 2 involves the entrance of an
eight-member team of researchers--termed Biospherians--who will attempt
to live inside the airtight structure for two years to test the
miniature biosphere's ability to maintain the life environment for the
3,800 inhabitant species of plants and animals," states a 1990 Space
Biospheres Ventures news release.
"No air, water or nutrients will cross the airtight boundary of space
frame and glass between Biosphere 2 and the surrounding biosphere of
Earth," the release states.
The rules have changed, and now Biosphere 2 is something else
"Goals are just something you dream up at the time, based on what you
know," Corliss said of the policy change. "Biosphere 2 has evolved and
changed, that's certainly true. That's the kind of organization this
In the late 1980s, Biosphere 2 was touted as a prototype space
habitat. It was just the kind of self-contained, self-sustaining
environment that would be needed on a permanently manned space station
or on the surface of another planet, according to Space Biospheres
The company also envisioned a day when a series of isolated,
protected biospheres would provide a refuge and preserve for endangered
species, providing both a means of survival and reintroduction in the
"Space Biospheres Ventures looks to have the capacity to begin to
market and produce biospheric syustems by 1992," states a company news
release from 1988. "Potential clients would include space programs,
universities, research institutes and governments."
Back then, the company also imagined that Biosphere 2 would be
solar-powered, and that the temperature inside the structure could be
controlled by a Venetian blind-like system of louvers that would reflect
sunlight out of the greenhouse.
Today's Biosphere 2 is powered by natural gas-burning generators
that supply electricity to the complex and to surrounding communities.
The miniworld is utterly reliant on air conditioning. If the power
went out in the middle of a summer afternoon, interior temperatures
would rocket to 150 degrees in an hour in some parts of the structure,
and plants would start dying, the top project engineer has said.
No one has yet bought a biosphere from Space Biospheres Ventures.
Today, the company stresses the earthly applications of Biosphere 2,
while space applications are mentioned in passing, if at all.
Still ultimate goal
The Biosphere 2 experiments will continue for 100 years, and in each
successive experiment fewer and fewer supplies will be imported,
Corliss said. Eventually the crew will be totally self-sufficient,
"We'll always be cutting down what we bring in," he said. "We'll be
cutting that down as much as we can."
Why even bother trying to be 100 percent self-sufficient? Why not
just keep track of what goes in and out, as they do now, and operate
Biosphere 2 more like a conventional research facility?
"You have to do it if you ever want to put one of these on the moon
and Mars," Corliss said. "This group has always been motivated by
grand visions, and the concept of taking one of these to Mars is a
perfect vision to establish for yourself.
"If you're talking about going to the stars, at least you're thinking
[Accompanying this article was the complete list of airlock openings
and what went in and out, which I will not reproduce here--it takes
up an entire half-page of the newspaper, in tiny print. -jjl]
Jim Lippard Lippard@CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU
Dept. of Philosophy Lippard@ARIZVMS.BITNET
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank