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Unfamiliar Land

Biosphere 2

Oracle, AZ


Biosphere 2 was originally published as part of a larger story, Atomic Road Trip Through America’s Southwest. If you enjoy reading about scientific and military oddities from the Cold War, click here for more.

If Biosphere 2 had been the imagination of a science fiction writer, it wouldn’t have been nearly as strange as real life. The project was conceived by oil baron billionaire Ed Bass in the 1980s during the Cold War. With the possibility of nuclear attack and climate change threatening to end life on earth, Ed Bass thought the days of humanity surviving on Earth were near the end. Biosphere 2 was meant to develop closed ecosystem technology that could be used to build permanent colonies on Mars or the Moon… and profit from the research.

In its first mission, eight researchers lived inside the complex for two years. The experiment succeeded, though just barely. Early on the team faced problems with crop yields and were forced to restrict their caloric intake. The amount of oxygen in the domes dropped to dangerous levels, an unexpected byproduct of bacteria feeding off of organic matter in the soil. By the end of the mission the health of the researchers was at serious risk, and in-fighting had split the team into two groups who refused to talk to each other.

The second mission was even more of a disaster. As the project’s cost overruns ran into the hundreds of millions, Ed Bass hired Steve Bannon (yes, the same Steve Bannon who would become famous during Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign) to bring Biosphere 2 back under budget. With Bannon as CEO, tension between researchers and management increased until reaching a boiling point in 1994. Ed Bass, along with other investors, filed a restraining order and had federal marshals forcibly take control of the complex. Fearing for the safety of the scientists still locked inside, two members of the first mission secretly opened the airlock door, ending the experiment. The ownership company dissolved shortly after.

“I considered the Biosphere to be in an emergency state. I still do. I made a conscious decision to terminate the experiment… In no way was it sabotage. It was my responsibility.” —Abigail Alling, “Biospherian”

Today, Biosphere 2 is owned by the University of Arizona. It’s no longer a closed system, although the complex is still used for research into ecology and climate change. Public tours are offered that take you through the greenhouses, underground tunnels and ocean environment. My guide was not shy about sharing details from its past. It’s an amazing facility, and even more so after you’ve heard the stories behind its history.

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