Eight minute “Biosphere 2” documentary of the experiment on humans confined for two years in an air-tight bottle, simulating a manned mission to Mars. The optimistic endeavor existed somewhere between science and sideshow. TIME Magazine called it one of the one hundred worst ideas of the 20th century, continuing the free press feeding frenzy which had plagued Biosphere 2, from the beginning of the project to its end. Its two year mission was to establish the prototype for a future colony on Mars.
The world on which we live is our first biosphere. The experiment was called Biosphere 2, located at the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in Arizona, and constructed at the cost of one hundred and fifty million dollars. It is a model of our planet confined to a bottle, sprawling over three acres of land, sealed beneath with tons of stainless steel plating, and covered above with a skin of glass. The occupants called it, “the bubble”. It was air-tight. More atmosphere leaks from the International Space Station, than that allowed to escape from Biosphere 2.
It was a self-sustaining greenhouse, with six distinct and separate habitats… rain forest, desert, salt water ocean, swamp, grassy savanna, and farm land where the inhabitants could grow food. On September 26, 1991, a crew of eight was locked into Biosphere 2… four men, and four women. They called themselves “Biospherians”, and they recycled everything, rebreathing the same air, purified by their plants which absorbed carbon dioxide and returned oxygen to the closed ecosystem. They drank the same recycled water, over and over again.
Members of the team had also founded a commune in the 1960’s. Their new goal was complete cooperation of the crew in isolation. The commune was also a theater company, a detail with which the press had a field day. But from a group characterised as actors, one would not have expected the hard science they performed. Most of what is known today about the effect of ocean acids on coral reefs, was discovered by the scientists of Biosphere 2.
Did they complete the mission? Yes, the Biospherians were released on September 26, 1993, after two years and twenty minutes of solitude. Did they live in Hippie harmony? Were they entirely self-sufficient? Did they avoid all contact with the outside world? Not really.
A major staple of their diet was rice, which was nearing the time of its harvest, when the researchers were sealed inside. A threshing machine was available to separate the stalks from the rice. A mere twelve days into the experiment, one of the women was cleaning this machine. Her hand got stuck and the tip of her finger was severed. Although the Biosphere crew included a medical doctor, the woman needed surgery. She was allowed to leave the bubble for two days.
A few months later, the rising level of carbon dioxide was getting too big to ignore. The Biospherians developed severe cases of sleep apnea, in which they would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for air. The soil that had been brought in from the outside, had been selected for its high fertility, but its nutrients were feeding a population explosion of bacteria, producing the excessive CO2. It was against the rules, but they were forced to power up the internal carbon dioxide scrubbers, which had been installed in case of an emergency.
The plants they farmed could fill only eighty percent of their need for food. The scientists were forced to rob their own seed bank, soaking, cooking and eating the beans, which should have been used to grow crops.
Mysteriously the limited supply of oxygen continued to decline. At sixteen months they were breathing as little oxygen as a mountain climber at an altitude of fourteen thousand feet. They discovered an invisible chemical process of sequestration was res[ponsible for binding 7 tons of oxygen, to the concrete walls inside the bubble. This meant they had to bring in tanks of liquid oxygen from the outside.
The research conducted by the crew would see publication in over one hundred and fifty scientific papers on Biosphere 2. However they were forced to abandon their goal of mutual cooperation. The researchers emerged from the bubble as one, but they had actually split into two opposing camps, two men and two women apiece. The splinter groups had not spoken more than a few words to eachother, in more than a year.
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