The last Biosphere 2 project ended 18 years ago. Correction: The failed Biosphere 2 project ended 18 years ago. That's right, our only real attempt to create an artificial, materially closed ecological system ended in complete failure. As it stands, we still do not know how to create a viable self-sustaining ecosystem — a frightening prospect given the current state of our environment and considering our future plans in space. It's time that we revived the Biosphere projects — and here's why.
For all our accomplishments as a species, we have yet to develop a closed ecosystem that can support human life for the long term. The task of building a functioning biosphere has proven to be exceptionally difficult and it's obvious that there are some major gaps in our understanding of how ecosystems work — gaps that are holding us back.
But it's not been for a lack of trying. To date there have been two major biosphere projects, both of them failures — and both of them offering important insights to the challenges ahead.
The first real effort was conducted by the Soviets in a series of experiments in BIOS-3 from 1972 to 1984 at the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. It was an 11,124 square foot facility that could house up to three persons. BIOS-3 was comprised of four compartments: a crew area, an algal cultivator, with the remaining two sections serving as a ‘phytron' where wheat and vegetables could be grown. Sunlight was simulated with 20 kW xenon lamps.
That said, it was not technically speaking a completely isolated biosphere. It drew energy from a nearby power source, dried meat was imported from the outside, and human waste was dried and stored instead of being recycled. BIOS-3 was used to conduct 10 human-occupied closure experiments, with the longest stint lasting for 180 days. Among its successes, the Soviets were able to produce oxygen from chlorella algae and recycle up to 85% of their water.
More recently there was the $200 million Biosphere 2 project in Oracle, Arizona. Equipped with a desert, rainforest, and ocean, Biosphere 2 explored a number of life-system interactions within a closed structure. It included five biome areas, an agricultural section, and a human living/working space. The experiment was also an attempt to determine if and how people could live and work together in close confines over a long term period.
Organizers conducted two sealed missions: the first for two years from 1991 to 1993 and the second for six months in 1994.
Soon after the launch of the first mission, it became obvious that setting up and managing the parameters that drive a functioning ecosystem was going to be exceptionally difficult. Oxygen levels began declining at a rate of 0.3% per month, and eventually the internal atmosphere matched that of a community at an elevation of over 4,000 feet (1,200 m). Oxygen levels eventually settled at a dangerously low level of 14% (rather than the nominal 21% found on Earth) and team members started to become ill.
In order to keep things going, organizers started to pump in pure oxygen and bring in other supplies from the outside. Biosphere 2 ceased to be a closed system and was subsequently branded a failure.
And as it turned out, oxygen was not the only problem. Biosphere 2 also suffered from wildly fluctuating CO2 levels. Most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died, while cockroaches and ants started to take over the place. The ocean eventually became too acidic and the internal temperature became impossible to control.
And just to make matters worse, the team started to experience health and psychological issues. The four men and four women left Biosphere 2 depressed and malnourished after nearly two years of isolation. Interpersonal relationships had regressed over the course of the two years, creating what the biospherians called a 'dysfunctional family.'
After the first experiment, the Biosphere 2 organizers conducted a shorter six month stint that ended in 1994. After the completion of this more focused experiment the owners decided to change directions and asked Columbia University for advice. Today it is largely a place where students can conduct experiments and tourists can loiter.
It's not like us to give up
Biosphere 2 was an important and eye-opening project because it revealed to us not only the difficulty of managing a closed ecosystem and the fragility of human psychology, it also showed us how challenging it will be for us to manage Biosphere 1 — the Earth's biosphere — should things really start to get out of whack.
Consequently, Biosphere 2 should not be considered a failure, but rather a wake-up call to scientists, environmentalists, politicians and the general public. Cynicism should be replaced with the understanding that it was an idea ahead of its time — but an important idea nonetheless. As Allen G. Breed reported:
[Jane] Poynter, chairwoman and president of Tucson-based Paragon Space Development, bristles at such talk. "I just am so sick of that sort of snarky way that a lot of people talk about the Biosphere in its early years," says Poynter, who still visits B2 often and sometimes leads tours. "The fact is that we built this unbelievable place that no one had ever done before. ... We were a very forward-thinking, very unusual group of people - pulled off an unbelievable feat. But, somehow, the unbelievable feat gets lost in the rest of the story."
The failure of Biosphere 2 should have resulted in the immediate creation of similar projects and related research. Today, it should be considered a matter of great scientific importance, as any insights gained are sure to have profound implications across many disciplines. Without overstating the issue, a renewed Biosphere program should be approached with the same enthusiasm and fervor as a mission to Mars.
And indeed, it should be a matter of great concern to people working in the space industry — both in the private and public sectors. Visionaries in both space exploration and space tourism would most certainly benefit from the creation of a working biosphere; humans will not go very far in space without a self-sustaining ecosystem around them.
Moreover, given the rate of global warming, we may start to lose the only functional bisophere we have. And if we have any hopes of getting our geoengineering projects to work, we should probably figure out how to create a working biosphere before we start messing with our own.