The Biosphere 2 experiment tried to replicate a proposed settlement on the moon, or on Mars. It didn’t work according to plan. But failed experiments are still results — just not desired results. Lots of people learned lots of things about life from the Biosphere 2 project and the experiments are still in progress.
Now the Unversity of Arizona operates it as a one-of-kind laboratory. They are trying to understand how the earth works — not how we could possibly replicate earth-like conditions on a different planet.
While we were between Phoenix and Tucson, we got to visit some of the open-for-tourist spaces at the Biosphere 2 experiment and were overwhelmed, impressed, and disappointed. We were camped at Catalina State Park about 30 minutes south of Biosphere. Here is a link to our review of Catalina State Park: Campsite Review: Catalina Campground. We really love Catalina State Park.
I put our visit to Biosphere 2, in the same category as our visit to the Getty Art Museum, Hearst Mansion, and presidential libraries. All are highly recommended. All these places are one-of-a-kind and beyond my imagination. In the same category of one-of-a-kind is Zion National Park and places like that. Overall, for me, Zion wins.
As of December 8th, we have now been living full-time in our RV for three years.
My Biosphere Imagination
In my imagination, I thought that the Biosphere 2 experiment was a recreation of the Garden of Eden, or perhaps a heaven-on-earth. The design concept was that once the doors were shut, the biosphere would be like the earth to provide everything that was needed for an endless occupation. In reality, the Biosphere 2 experiment was more similar to a jail. Or perhaps a work farm.
Once you were locked in — you could not come out. (few exceptions)
Spaceship Earth = Biosphere #1
The vision was that by replicating earth — science could provide everything a person (or in this case a crew) could possibly need.
One of the things that the Biosphere #2 experiment proved is that no matter what outpost you put on the moon or Mars, no matter how technologically advanced the adventure – there was no way you could replicate life on earth without near-constant re-supply.
Everyone in the Navy understands ships don’t go out to sea without resupply. If they really wanted to know how it was to lock yourself into a closed system for extended durations, they should have consulted the Navy. Some of our Nuclear Submarines go under the water and stay there for six months at a time — until they run out of food. The difference in the Biosphere is that they thought they could sustain it forever if they grew enough food and made enough oxygen.
The Biosphere proved the same thing — resupply is critical. The Navy, the International Space Station, and prior to that Skylab proved the same thing — resupply is critical.
The rainforest inside the big greenhouse does look like Eden.
They locked themselves inside for two years.
The biosphere was designed to be a closed system. Once the doors were locked, nothing was allowed to come in or out. (with exceptions of electricity and heat) Not even outside air was allowed in. Mostly, the air they started with was the air they ended with. The plants inside the structure did a reasonable job at converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. (Not a great job, but a reasonable job.)
Because the temperature fluctuated — so did the pressure. The big dome you see in some of the pictures was called “lungs”. As air pressure increased the lungs inside the dome expanded and as the pressure dropped, the lungs sent the air back to the biosphere where the crew lived.
The white domes in the picture above (and at the top of the post) are the location the crew lived during the two-year occupation. The structure at the top, which looks like a golf ball on top of a tee, was the library/lounge. The library fell into disuse during the experiment because it was too much effort to climb the stairs and even though it had a panoramic view, the crew didn’t wasn’t interested in looking out — since they were locked in. The crew quarters have been converted to office spaces and laboratories and sadly were not available as part of the “tour”.
It is false to think that the crew lived alone in the biosphere without outside assistance. The fact is that even though they were supposed to be on their own in terms of oxygen, food, and water there was an outside crew that managed the engineering plant that created electricity and regulated cooling/heating into the biosphere from the outside. Even the exterior of the biosphere was maintained from the outside during the experiment to keep the place from falling apart due to the extreme heat and other weather conditions in the desert.
The interior structure also had some invaders who rather liked the biosphere environment. Ants and cockroaches became an overwhelming nuisance. Even some of the plants grew so rapidly that they were blocking out the sun that the other plants needed to have photosynthesis and create enough oxygen. Microbes in the soil were also present and consumed lots of oxygen. The plants couldn’t replace as much oxygen as the plants and animals consumed. Oxygen was a real problem — in fact, the crew was running out of oxygen during the Biosphere experiment.
Lack of oxygen created a high altitude-like environment similar to living at 14,000 feet. At least one time the crew resorted to using carbon dioxide scrubbers to remove carbon dioxide from the air. At least one time, fresh air was added to replace the oxygen.
The three greenhouses were also part of the “farm” inside the biosphere. This included some smaller farm animals including goats and chickens. During the experiment, the crew was able to create the most productive farms on earth. It wasn’t enough.
Despite being very good at farming, the crew was starving. Most of what they were eating was the plants they grew, supplemented by some of the products the animals produced (eggs, milk, and cheese) and chickens. This created a very low caloric intake. On average, the crew lost 16% of their body weight due to a lack of food. At one time, some of the crew were eating the seed stock that would have been necessary to continue the experiment.
Huge — but not big enough
One of the results of the experiment was that the farm wasn’t big enough or diverse enough. The crew couldn’t grow enough food and they also got very tired of some easy-to-grow food. There are only so many ways to make beans taste good. They grow fast but that doesn’t make them taste any better. They had a small area called the orchard. Produce from the orchard was like a gift from heaven and it was rare.
Anyone who spends time in greenhouses knows that they get very hot, very fast once the sunrises. They need quick and constant ventilation. The Biosphere greenhouses were sealed and during our time there, mid-day with cool temperatures and constant wind they were oppressively hot. We were cold when we entered the big greenhouse from the southside. (near the dome on the left side of the following photo)
Once inside the heat was on. We were there in December; in the summer the heat must have been oppressive. Inside the greenhouse was a saltwater lagoon, complete with a coral reef and a jungle. We climbed the stairs through the jungle zones and by the time we were at the upper levels I was hot and anxious to get out. The same problem of wildly fluctuating temperatures caused too much evaporation and too much rain. This was like the Amazon jungle — uncontrollable and uncomfortable.
Experiments are still being conducted at the Biosphere complex, but after two lock-in periods (the first one, two years, and the second one, six months) they gave up trying to live inside without outside assistance.
It is not part of the experiment but the solar panels below are being used to charge an electric car and create part of the electricity needed to run the engineering plant. Notice that even with a huge budget and plenty of really smart people they made the classic mistake when tilting the solar panels. The southern rows are casting shadows on the northern rows. Even small shadows kill electricity production from solar panels. In the summer, the panels won’t be shading each other as much. I mention this not to make fun of them, but rather to point out some of the problems with solar panels.
Tourism during Covid
We avoid almost all tourist attractions, and anywhere multiple people gather in close proximity due to the pandemic. Outside is much safer than anything inside. Alone is safer than in any group. Still, we make exceptions on a limited basis.
We still see friends, they are too important to avoid. We also make a few exceptions to see some area attractions. The Biosphere self-guided tour was one of these exceptions and previously was closed, but now was opened with limited access.
I counted a total of six tourists when we were there in the middle of the week. There was more staff attending to the tourists than tourists — and most of the staff were stationed at the entrance. Social distance was not an issue and we wore our masks longer that day than we have since the start of the pandemic. In terms of the pandemic, it was one of the safest things we have done (except staying at home in our RV) and way safer than shopping for groceries.
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