The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2

Space Biospheres Ventures called it Biosphere 2 because it was intended to compress the life support functions of the planet-sized Biosphere 1 (Earth, the original) into a little over three acres. On September 26, 1991 at 8 a.m., eight humans of both sexes who had been working and training for the experiment for years prior to this entered the steel-and-glass space frame and began a two-year sojourn. The author was one of the eight.

From the beginning, the press construed Biosphere 2 as a test, like a space mission, the end of a the process instead of the beginning. As a test, there were so many loose ends it had to be a fraud. Poynter does a nice job of pointing out some of the doubts. In the closed environment, would clouds of spores and bacteria build up, infecting the humans? She never mentions it again, so we presume it was not a problem. But there were lots of unexpected outcomes. The few panes of glass installed to provide the UV light for the reptiles’ vitamin-D production caused bees to collide with the glass, killing them, which meant crops had to be hand-pollinated. The space frame condensed water vapor, which made it rain in the human habitat. Carbon dioxide levels inside the glass fluctuated wildly because of stormy weather outside. Unsealed concrete in the structure absorbed carbon dioxide produced by bacteria in the soil, mysteriously (until understood) taking oxygen out of the air as its only effect on the closely-monitored atmosphere. The agricultural area was not big enough (actually, that might not have been a surprise).

The book has its poetic moments. Poynter’s description of the transformation that overtook all of them when exposed to the isolation of the unknown during the training on the research vessel Heraclitus and in the Australian outback, and again in Biosphere 2, is almost poignant.

In spite of that training, and in only 10 months, enclosure in Biosphere 2 almost overwhelmed the participants with division and conflict. We get a first hand view of that without any obvious bias. It was one of the elements that led the crew, the author at least, to feel a sense of impatience as they lined up to exit through the same submarine hatch they had used for entry two years earlier. When the outer door opened on Biosphere 1, it was September 26, 1993 at 8:20 a.m.