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Biosphere 2, The Legend Lives On

Biosphere 2: Eight people locked for two years inside an alternate earth, one that had a rainforest, ocean, desert, mangrove, and savannah. They would learn how to survive on their own, using only the "natural" environment that had been created beneath the glass, growing their own food, studying the world, paving a more sustainable future for mankind. Or so I remember learning as I sat in Mrs. Glose's first grade classroom talking about a grade-level appropriate article we had just read. The project opened in 1991, however, so I was more likely in fifth or sixth grade, but my memory is far from the only failure in this story. Either way, the experiment sounded like the most exciting thing imaginable. How much I wanted to be part of their group. 

And then, I have no more memories of learning about the project and it was completely out of my mind for decades. Why? Why don't I remember following the project for those two years, learning more about it in school, tracking the progress and watching grainy video transmissions as if the people inside were astronauts communicating from far, far away? What went wrong?

I likely never would have thought about it again had I not chosen to visit Tucson. But there I was, my first weekend in town, driving north of the city and suddenly a green road sign announced: Biosphere 2, 20 miles. Biosphere 2? That Biosphere 2?! Images of the large greenhouse like structures instantly returned to my brain and the childhood excitement came surging back. I had to go see it, immediately. 

science lab buildings in the desert 
science lab buildings in the desert

As exciting as it was to be walking on those sacred grounds, the tour itself was a slight let-down, mostly because you walk around the grounds with an app on your phone, rather than a real tour guide. Maybe that's because of COVID, but I think it might be that way all the time. The information about how Biosphere 2 was built and operated was fascinating, but a pre-recorded tour is not the same as a human who has experience with the place and who can ask a bunch of question. And we did get to go inside the buildings, which was awesome, but not into the living quarters of the former Biospherians and not into the library at the top of the great dome.

woman in front of science lab buildings in the desert

woman inside tall glass pyramid structure

Without a tour guide, I was left wanting more information, so I went down an internet hole. What did I find? All sorts of terrible articles about what a sham the experiment was, how it wasn't real science, how the whole thing failed, how the participants "cheated" and got outside help with medical issues, food, and even oxygen. No!!! It was bad enough when I learned Santa Claus wasn't real. (definitely first grade on that one, not fifth or sixth) Don't destroy the dream of Biosphere 2 as well. 

Then it got worse. It turns out that a documentary about the whole event recently came out on Hulu. It's called Spaceship Earth and, of course, I watched it the next day. I was desperate for answers, for someone to debunk the debunkers, to restore the legend. Well, I appeared to be looking to the wrong savior. The film begins by tracing the lives of some weird hippie people, putting on weird plays they had written and generally being very strange. I thought I had put on the wrong documentary and I almost turned it off. But I'm glad I stuck with it. 

Here's the thing - this story has a happy ending. What you understand by watching the movie is that there was nothing wrong with the "cheating" and the "failures." No, the Biospherians weren't trained scientists. They were dreamers, visionaries, hopefuls...people who wanted a better future for humans and were willing to sacrifice two years of their life to work hard and work collectively to achieve it. No, the experiment didn't work perfectly. But why did it have to? It was an experiment. They were seeing what was possible and what would need to be changed and improved. If they had to add carbon dioxide scrubbers, so what? No one would have wanted to the Biospherians to die. It was all a learning experience. It didn't have to be flawless to be worthwhile. 

The only real failure of the Biosphere 2 project was management. The people in charge tried to hide the shortcomings and changes of plan from the public. They tried to pretend everything was perfect instead of communicating honestly about the problems and lessons learned and adjustments that had to be made to keep the work going. They lied, and when they were found out, the press twisted the story to make a mockery of the work. And elementary school kids like me never heard about it again. What a shame. 

As for me, my wide-eyed love of Biosphere 2 is back and the Biospherians are my heroes. 

three women wearing face masks