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The Lost History of One of the World's Strangest Scientific Experiments

The New York Times
Biosphere 2’s
Synergia Ranch —
Space Biospheres Ventures
University of Arizona
ABC News
The New York Times Opinion
Space Biosphere Ventures
Columbia University
the University of Arizona
The University of Arizona
Twitter (@NYTopinion
@carlzimmer • Facebook

Steve Bannon
Abigail Alling
Mark Van Thillo
John Allen
Ed Bass
a Man-Made
Carl Hodges
Vladimir Vernadsky
Woody Harrelson
Timothy Leary
Jane Poynter
Roy Walford
Rebecca Stewart
Joel Cohen
David Tilman
Bob Fry
William Schlesinger
Biospherian Mark Nelson
John Adams
Carl Zimmer


Santa Catalina Mountains
the moon and Mars

Biosphere 2

New Mexico
Beverly Hills

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The New York Times
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Ms. Alling and Mr. Van Thillo had recently emerged from a two-year stay in Biosphere 2. In 1984, the company announced it was going to build an airtight structure inside of which ecosystems would thrive, supplying a group of people with air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat.As Biosphere 2 took shape in the desert, it racked up headlines (“Desert Dreamers Build a Man-Made World” reported this newspaper). Soviet scientists, investigating ways to keep cosmonauts alive in space, lived for up to six months in experimental chambers where they breathed oxygen from algae and ate hydroponic crops.Biosphere 2 would be a gigantic leap beyond those creations. According to Mr. Bannon, Biosphere 2 would run a deficit of $16 million to $20 million in 1993 alone.By the time the first Biosphere 2 crew emerged, Mr. Bannon had decided Mr. Allen and the rest of the leadership would have to go. That purge is what spurred Ms. Alling and Mr. Van Thillo to break into Biosphere 2.After they were arrested, Ms. Alling tearfully told the press that they had been worried for the safety of the new crew. “In short, the Biosphere 2 experiment failed to generate sufficient breathable air, drinkable water and adequate food for just eight humans, despite an expenditure of $200 million,” the ecologist Rebecca Stewart and her colleagues declared. The University of Arizona scientist Bob Fry summed it up well in a newspaper interview: “It’s an experiment, but only in the sense that life is an experiment.”It’s true that there was only one Biosphere 2, but, then again, there is also only one Earth. “It’s shameful to simply accept that these important data are gone,” he wrote.When asked about Dr. Nelson’s assertion, John Adams, the current deputy director of Biosphere 2, replied that “the University of Arizona was not transferred any historical data archives.” Have they vanished, like one of Aristotle’s lost books?In the 25 years since Ms. Alling and Mr. Van Thillo broke into Biosphere 2, our species has profoundly altered Biosphere 1.

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