Space Biospheres Venture, Tucson, Arizona, 1991
CAN HUMANITY RECREATE ITSELF IN A MINIATURE EARTH BUBBLE?
Biosphere II remains the largest and most famous closed ecological system ever built. Its purpose was to test the viability of a biologically regenerative artificial environment in order to support human habitat in space. Space Biospheres Venture—a venture between Ed Bass, a businessman and philanthropist, and John P. Allen, a systems ecologist and environmentalist—spent approximately 200 million dollars to build and sustain the facility. Biosphere 2 supported two experiments where a team of scientists would lock themselves from the exterior world and create their own food and air supply within a heavily sequestered and maintained series of ecosystems. Although the first experiment supported human habitation for just over two years, there has been much criticism over the viability and rigor of the scientific ambitions of the project. The second experiment failed after social and political conflicts inhibited the collaboration and management of another endeavor.
The facility spans 3.14 acres and stands 91 feet tall at its highest point. It includes five ecosystem regions, known as biomes, including a desert, a marsh (mangrove wetlands), an ocean, a rainforest, and savannah grasslands. It also includes areas for agricultural cultivation, human habitat, and basement infrastructure. The structure was a steel and glass space frame developed by one of Buckminster Fuller’s associates, Peter Jon Pearce. At its time of completion, Biosphere 2 was ‘the world’s most airtight building, designed to leak no more than 10% of its air per year, which was half of the rate of the Space Shuttle (Kim and Carver, “Crisis in Crisis”). To accommodate the shifting interior air pressure, due to the rise and fall of diurnal and seasonal temperatures, two geodesic domes enclosed steel ‘lungs’ that expanded and contracted as part of the facility’s complex interior HVAC systems. The basement area, known as the ‘Technosphere,’ housed all the major mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems. The 26 air handling units inside the Technosphere circulated air and created artificial precipitation for some of the biomes.
Although Biosphere 2 has received credit as “setting the standard for a growing field” (Anker, “The Closed World of Ecological Architecture”), it has also been notorious for its poor interior air quality, thriving of unexpected species like cockroaches and issues of severe hunger that the biospherians faced (Karaim, “World in a bottle”). After six months, oxygen absorption from raw concrete depleted the O2 levels in the facility by 6% (Kim and Carver, “Crisis in Crisis”). Combined with the need to dump tons of sodium bicarbonate to offset the pH imbalance in the ocean biome, the scientific community and popular media wrote off the integrity of the project. Rumors developed, claiming that at least one of the scientists had left the facility and brought back food from the outside (Karaim, “World in a bottle”). Lack of documentation and oversight made tracking the rumors impossible to prove or disprove. The second experiment proved a much larger disaster. After several months, a schism occurred among the scientists and participants in Space Biospheres Venture. One camp supported John Allen while the other supported Ed Bass. The latter claimed that John Allen and his ‘Synergists’ “were destroying the credibility of the project,” after Ed Bass took control of the project after the failure of the first experiment (Karaim, “World in a bottle”). John Allen’s scientists sabotaged the second experiment in retaliation by opening the airlocks of
Biosphere 2. The mission was compromised, and ended soon thereafter.
Despite these dramatic failures, the life of Biosphere 2 continues. From 1996 to 2003, Columbia University rented the facility to conduct its own ecological experiments. In 2005, Decisions Investments Corporation (Ed Bass’ company) placed the property on the market, prompting fears that the facility would be compromised or destroyed due to new retail construction in the area. From 2007 to 2011, the University of Arizona rented the space, and eventually bought the property outright as part of its B2 Institute, displacing fears that Biosphere 2 would be demolished.
Biosphere 2 was proposed as a kind of prototype space-ship, or fallout shelter, to preserve an ecology past the inevitable destruction of Biosphere 1, the earth. If we look at Biosphere 2 as a laboratory, and its occupation as an experiment, rather than focusing on its failures, both become far more valuable. The facility, which leaked less air per annum than the space shuttle, and its pressure regulating lungs is an engineering marvel, and even unsealed, proved to be of great value to Columbia University as a research center, which only abandoned ownership due to lack of funds.
The “failures” of Biosphere 2 provide valuable insights to the construction of sustainable artificial ecosystems, identifying new and unforeseen issues that would only arise through live experimentation. Moreover, as time went on, the environment stabilized somewhat, and the residents were better able to manage food and oxygen supplies, techniques that could be again, only developed through live experimentation. It was only by coupling Biosphere 2 to philosophic and political ambitions that its success and failure can be critiqued.
OUTSIDE ELEMENTS: Introduction of outside elements during the closed experiments. Sealed non-food instruments were brought inside after one of the scientists left the facility to be treated for an illness.
LOSS OF WEIGHT: The research team all lost weight (approximately 14 percent of their body mass) and complained of fatigue brought by oxygen deprivation.
RAMPANT SPECIES: Some of the species became rampant, starving other species and damaging some of the agricultural systems. These species included cockroaches, ‘crazy ants,’ broad mites, and morning glories.
INTERNAL PROBLEMS: Internal problems occurred because of ‘confined environment psychology,’ where crew members began to turn against each other.
EXPOSED CONCRETE HARMED OXYGEN: Exposed concrete harmed the oxygen regenerative capabilities of the facilities, especially in the ocean.