Week of April 5, 2004
Snapshot from the Field
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by JACK LYNE, Site Selection Executive Editor
PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. Biosphere2: That, I swear, is exactly what the entranceway sign said as we pulled into this much publicized facility in the wilds of the Sonora Desert. Right now, though, it feels like we've blundered instead into an unsettling mix of "The X Files" and "The Twilight Zone."
Earlier, we'd asked in advance for e-mailed directions to our interview here at Biosphere2. Somehow, they never arrived. And there's no help coming from the guard station at the entrance. It's empty. Finally, we see an arrow pointing toward "Administration." Naively, we think, 'Oh, OK,' and drive down the hill.
Then, suddenly, we're in a ghost town. A cluster of buildings heaves into view, the Biosphere's iconic steel-and-glass shape rising in the distance to the right. But all of the buildings are stripped empty inside, we discover after knocking and then peeking through the windows. And they're all locked as well.
Except one. We turn the knob, and it gives. We step in hesitantly, calling out, "Anybody home?" The words ricochet down empty hallways. Still searching for life forms - ones with directions - we climb a long stairway to two large wooden doors. A knock sends one creaking open. Inside is a spacious meeting room, a massive wooden table almost totally filling the space. Around it are some 20 stuffed chairs. Every one is empty.
So what the flip is this? A gathering of the Board of Ghosts?
Ghosts, after all, are a big part of the Biosphere's legacy. The most prominent phantom is the idealistic vision that created this one-of-a-kind research lab, a byzantine structure that covers 3.15 acres (1.26 hectares). Soon enough, though, that dream crashed head-on into Mother Nature. And that loosed the fangs of a massive press corps that turned into a pack of mad dogs.
Today, the Biosphere is bound for yet another new frontier - the real estate market. The living lab and its surrounding environs will soon be up for sale.
Biosphere's Vision of ColonizingAt least that's what we learn after we finally find that, yes, there is life inside Biosphere2.
Space Drew a Chorus of Derisive Hoots
That life materializes after we stumble at last across our original destination: the office of Christopher Bannon, Biosphere2's affable general manager.
"Those empty buildings are the west campus that Columbia University formerly occupied," Bannon explains of the eerie scene we wandered into. "There's no active research or experimentation going on here now."
That's a strange pass for the US$150-million Biosphere. Built in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the structure was all about research.
"This was Ed Bass' brainchild," Bannon says of the New Mexico billionaire who personally bankrolled the Biosphere. "And he still owns it through his company, Decisions Investment Corp. (DIC)."
What Bass built was part ecology project, part outer-space experiment. He created an artificial environment as a model for a human colony on the moon or Mars. Living in space, you say? Hoo, boy. That one drew a chorus of scathing hoots.
Wrote New Scientist magazine, "The whole enterprise, run by a secretive eco-cult, was viewed by most of the scientific community with scorn, tinged with regret for a good project gone to waste."
Space Colonization Now Presidential PolicyThe Biosphere even inspired a teen-oriented Hollywood spoof, 1996's Bio-Dome.
Bio-Dome wouldn't have caused Shakespeare to lose any sleep. The movie's two dunderhead leads (one of them noted thespian Pauly Shore) were accidentally locked inside a sealed environment for a year. Lots o' Mother Nature, no women, loads o' laughs!
Today, of course, the Biosphere's vision has shed its flaky image. Space colonization is part of presidential policy.
"We do not know where this journey will end," President George Bush said in January. "Yet we do know this: Human beings are headed into the cosmos."
That, in turn, may mean that NASA is headed to the queue of Biosphere's prospective buyers.
Life in the Biosphere:We do know this, too. Biosphere's history suggests that space colonists are headed into trying times.
Food, Oxygen in Short Supply
"What was the biggest lesson from the Biosphere? That you can't replicate that," says Bannon, pointing out his office window to the undisturbed desert landscape outside.
"Biosphere was the first attempt at a sealed mini-world," he continues. "And then the biospherians got inside, and nature took over and ran amok."
Nature did indeed have its inevitable way inside Biosphere2 (named for its attempt to replicate Biosphere1 - the mother ship, planet Earth).
The facility's most high-profile colonization lasted two years. Eight biospherians entered the structure on Sept. 26, 1991. The building's airlock was sealed behind them. The crew went in carrying three months worth of food, along with animals that included chickens, pigs and goats. Once inside, the group was to grow its own food, recycling air, water and waste. They weren't set to re-emerge until Sept. 26, 1993.
And in short order, all hell broke loose. Walden Pond, it wasn't.
El Nino made the next two years the cloudiest ever for the normally sun-baked site. Many crops failed; others barely produced. The Biosphere's coffee plants, for instance, only yielded enough beans to make one cup per person every two weeks.
Then the pig population died off. And the chickens produced only 256 eggs in the first year. (Second-year output was better. Chickens were fed the cockroaches that had invaded.)
Even oxygen became scarce. There was the facility's low plant yield, plus oxygen depletion from unforeseen absorption by the concrete foundation and the soil installed atop it. As a result, the Biosphere's oxygen dropped to a lung-taxing level approximating a sky-high Tibetan village in the Himalayas.
Panting biospherians found themselves logging 70-hour weeks simply trying to create enough food to survive. The Biosphere facility dedicated space for exercise equipment. Its inhabitants were too exhausted to even touch it.
Rice made up most of what was left to eat. To maintain a semblance of sanity, the biospherians staged feasts on rare birthdays and holidays, eating their fill.
A doctor was one of the biospherians, and he regularly monitored the crew's health. Everyone lost weight; most emerged from the ordeal with 3 to 4 percent body fat.
More Life in the Biosphere:In addition to punishing physical strains, the Biosphere's psychological demands created a cautionary tale of life inside closed environments.
Harmony, Sanity in Short Supply
NASA, which had designed part of the building, considered having its psychologists study isolation's effects. But Biosphere's top managers vetoed the idea.
NASA's shrinks would've had a field day. Stress sharply splintered the biospherians into two groups of four. The factions rarely spoke.
The Biosphere's mounting woes triggered the schism. One group was firmly opposed to bringing in any outside elements. But outside elements, the other group asserted, were just what was needed to ease the mounting suffering.
Finally, the latter group prevailed. The building's seal was broken, and oxygen was pumped in.
How that decision was handled left the Biosphere with a deep stain that never washed out. Officials with Space Biosphere Ventures, which built and then first managed the facility, decided to bury the facts. Bad decision, says Barron.
"If they'd just told the truth," he asserts, "if they'd just said, 'Hey, we're really trying here to make this work and keep our people healthy.' Now, that would've been a great story. The press would've loved it."
But that story never drew breath. To make matters worse, decision-makers may've never let their public relations man in on the oxygen pump-in.
"I don't think the press guy who worked here knew about that," says Barron. "So when rumors started, he told the press who called that it hadn't happened."
But it had. And once the press confirmed that, it bit down hard. Slurs like scam and fraud weren't uncommon. That probably wasn't the case, but it didn't matter. The project never shook the negative image.
Columbia U. Comes, GoesBut the Biosphere soldiered on.
A second crew of biospherians entered the facility in 1994 and stayed six months. Predictably, press coverage was scarce, although things went far better. Food, for example, wasn't a problem, owing to better weather and a different breed of biospherian.
"That second group included a fourth-generation Nepalese farmer who could've grown crops on my desk here," says Barron.
But after that second go-round, the isolation experiments ended. The project's scientific credibility was at a low ebb.
Bass decided to change that. He fired Biosphere's management company and inked a long-term agreement with New York-based Columbia University. Columbia took over in late 1995, building a campus and setting up environmental science and research operations. Through the end of 2003, more than 1,200 students came to live and study at the Biosphere.
No more are coming. Columbia officially pulled the plug on the program on Dec. 22, 2003, removing all its equipment.
"Columbia got a new president (Lee Bollinger) last October, and he reviewed all of the university's commitments," says Bannon. "He came out here and spent three days looking things over. Then he decided to end the program. I think he wanted Columbia to have a more urban New York focus, and he wanted to make the new campus there his legacy."
The parting wasn't pleasant. DIC sued, accusing Columbia of reneging on its contract.
"The contract ran through 2010," Bannon explains. "Eventually, the litigation was settled out of court. The terms are secret."
Public Tours Resume,Still to be settled is where the Biosphere site is bound.
But Don't Pay the Bills
"We've been doing a lot of leg work, determining the facility's market and value," says Bannon, who's managed the operation for both Columbia and DIC. "There's really nothing that exists like the Biosphere, and it has a readymade campus around it with 100 other buildings on 250 acres (100 hectares)." DIC, he adds, will also likely sell the 1,000 acres (400 hectares) it owns surrounding the site.
The Biosphere pared back operations after Columbia announced its impending pullout. Late last year, DIC closed the site's full-service restaurant and its hotel, made up of 27 adobe bungalows in bright desert colors. "Keeping them open with Columbia leaving just didn't make financial sense," Bannon explains.
In early February, though, DIC reopened paid Biosphere tours. The facility averages about 300 visitors a day. DIC expects about 150,000 visitors for 2004. Tour revenues, though, aren't nearly enough to pay the freight, says Bannon.
"Our operating budget was $10 million a year when Columbia was here," he explains. "That's a lot less than the Biosphere's $20 million to $25 million in its early days, which is one reason it failed. Without Columbia, we hope to get the budget much lower."
The Biosphere still has a staff of some 60 employees, about half part-timers working the tours.
Buyer Interest Already Clear,The whole site will probably officially hit the market in the fall, Bannon says. Even now, though, potential buyers are showing interest.
But Will NASA Come Calling?
"Since October," notes Bannon, "we've been contacted by about 50 groups, including universities, biotech companies, national church groups, hotel resorts, spas and developers."
But has NASA come calling in the wake of Bush's space push?
"Not yet," says Bannon. "But we've prepared talking points and memos, laying the groundwork if we're approached. The Biosphere probably isn't what NASA would want to build on Mars. Interior-wise, though, it could simulate some of the conditions and could get the program ramped up."
Some observers, however, feel that NASA's command-and-control style is too much at odds with the Biosphere's history of unpredictability. Then again, unpredictability may be just what space colonists face.
What the Biosphere's new owner does with the site may determine its legacy.
That legacy could be something like the Wright Brothers' early failed attempts at flight, which became stepping stones to success.
On the other hand, the Biosphere's legacy could be a giant question mark.
"No," says Bannon, "no current staff members live on-site. Fortunately, none of us have ever had to live in the Biosphere. Every time I go in there - and it's hundreds of times during my 10 years here - I come out shaking my head and thinking, 'What was that?' "
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