Biosphere 2 (http://biosphere2.org) is a landmark simulated space colony 20 miles north of Tucson, Arizona that gained international notoriety in the early ‘90s. In the scenic sense, it resembles a Mars colony. (Photo courtesy Biosphere 2.) Its parent company, Space Biospheres Ventures, built the airtight steel-and-glass structure to demonstrate the principle of environmental closure, the type of life support system one might try to use in space. It sealed eight human “biospherians” into the three-acre laboratory for two years (1991-1993). The attempt was successful, but not without incident. Paranoid behavior on the part of the management of Space Biospheres Ventures alienated the press and the scientific community. However, the experiment led to new knowledge about the difficulties of building closed ecosystems, about the physics and chemistry of building materials, and about how humans react to enclosure.
These days, the facility is not used for science, but offers tours featuring perfect weather, great views of the Catalina Mountains and a fascinating trip under glass through a highly instrumented tropical rain forest, wetlands, a desert, savanna, and an ocean biome, complete with mechanically-generated wind, waves, and rain. It might have made great science fiction reality TV.
Yet Biosphere 2 is dying. Not biologically, although that may happen, too, but financially.
Decision Investments Corporation of Fort Worth, Texas and its multibillionaire principal Ed Bass provided the $200 million backing for Biosphere 2. Bass, never having made a dime on the deal, is looking for an exit strategy that does not involve bulldozing his brainchild.
Briefly, Biosphere 2 tried running as a scientific tourist attraction. It offered tours, though not under the glass, a gift shop, restaurant, hotel and conference center. It failed.
From 1996 to 2003 Columbia University tried running the campus as a biological research station with student help. No longer sealed, the big space frame was nevertheless controlled, with scientists manipulating temperature, carbon dioxide, and nutrient levels to determine how Biosphere 1 (the Earth) might respond to human-induced global warming. One finding: rising CO2 may do more harm to coral reefs than anticipated. The Columbia business model assumed intellectual property spun off from the project would lead to capital development, but that did not happen. The facility was said to be too expensive to run. A 2003 Department of Energy report put the cost of operating Biosphere 2 at $4 million/year, financially about the size of a small business.
The 85,000 people who visited Biosphere 2 in 2004, at a cost of $20 each, together generated $1.7 million. Do the math. It’s clearly not enough.
A deal with Fairfield Homes to build luxury houses on the 1658 acres around Biosphere 2 was called off in the fall of 2006, possibly because Fairfield proposed to knock down part of the Biosphere to improve the view. Shortly after that, Jerry Hawkins of CB Richard Ellis, a Tucson broker representing Decision Investments, told the press that the property was NOT available for sale.
At about the same time, the Arizona Daily Star
reported that the University of Arizona was negotiating to take over the 140-acre Biosphere 2 campus in an undisclosed deal that the negotiators said “won’t cost the UA a nickel”. Maybe, but an editorial in the same newspaper observed that “Biosphere 2 has been more of a tourist attraction than a research center.” That being the case, the writer doubted that the “not a nickel” plan applies to the taxpayers generally.
As has frequently been true with Biosphere 2, scant facts are available, but here are two:
1) There is a consensus among visitors that the one-of-a-kind facility is a cultural must-see.
2) Biosphere 2’s future is uncertain. Better go see it soon.
The whole story about admission has been written by the University of Arizona, calling it "membership", and making it pretty much incomprehensible to outsiders. Better see the web site
. However, for visitors, it boils down to an individual admission price of