Ever since seeing the movie Bio-Dome in the 90s, I’ve been intrigued by giant glass enclosures in the middle of the desert. Anyone who knows the movie can’t deny having the same feelings! Little did I know that our job would bring me the opportunity to check out the real deal first hand. About an hour north of Tucson, Arizona lies Biosphere 2. Its original construction was completed sometime around 1991 by Space Biosphere Ventures. At that time, eight volunteers, four men and four women were sealed off in this self-contained habitat. It’s believed that this research facility was working toward making these types of habitats for space colonization. After all was said and done, the experiment received both praise and serious criticism, but there’s no doubt it was a fascinating venture, and still worth a visit today.
There were different zones within the Biosphere 2, which is the largest enclosed system of it’s kind. Some were aquatic, others where grassy; there was even a desert. Yes, a desert inside and outside the glass! The aquatic areas held an algae that produce oxygen, which would obviously be important if you were actually in space. The domes had all the elements that made life on Biosphere 1 (Earth) possible.
As in the movie, there was plenty of conflict in this real biosphere experiment. There was drama among the organizers, among the participant researchers and from the public realm. There’s no doubt that with a little Googling you too will get sucked into the Biosphere 2 tabloids. (Two of the researchers, who called themselves Gaia and Laser, are of particular interest.) One of the volunteers even wrote a book about the experience, entitled, The Human Experiment. The cliff notes version is that there were both technical flaws with the structures themselves and then there was the idea that these eight researchers would get along for two years making decisions together. That did not pan out in the least. The isolation and pressure of the experiments certainly didn’t help, neither did the alarming rate that oxygen levels dropped from the beginning. Oxygen had to be pumped in in order for the team to complete the two year experiment. Clearly Biosphere 2 wasn’t working if they had to take in oxygen from Biosphere 1. The experiments lasted a couple of years before the funding and the company dissolved.
In 1995, Columbia University took over management of Biosphere 2, and used it for the next 8 years or so as a research site and campus. Students could even spend a semester there! Biosphere 2 is now owned by the University of Arizona. In 2011 they started conducting research within the compound but not the closed-in kind. The facility is open daily for tours from 9 am to about 4 pm but it’s best to call since the times change seasonally.