TUCSON -- The future rises from the bulldozed desert floor. It gleams in the brilliant high-altitude sun. It is the self-consciously futuristic future of our fantasies.
To call Biosphere 2 a greenhouse is to understate: It is a miniature world, a wholly enclosed planetoid spanning 3.15 acres, complete with rain forest, ocean, marsh, savanna, desert, farm and human habitat. There are eight humans sealed inside, four men and four women. They call themselves "bionauts." They vow not to emerge for two years. For ceremonial occasions they wear identical red jumpsuits. It's all very Space Age.
Pete and Betty Hatton, retirees from California, heard about it on "Good Morning America." They've paid $10 each to circle the massive structure with a cluster of other tourists. The tour guide says it is the second most popular attraction in Arizona, after the Grand Canyon.
"I think it's really a great test of the future," says Pete. "You can't live in the past. You have to live in the future."
The tourists file underground and behold the ocean through a huge plate glass window. It doesn't look quite right. It's strangely green. And cloudy. As though it's slowly turning into ... slime.
The future, alas, isn't going as smoothly as planned. Biosphere 2 -- the most conspicuous ecological experiment on the planet, lauded by reputable scientists, widely publicized -- is in danger of becoming a $150 million boondoggle.
"It was screwed up," says Walter Adey, the Smithsonian Institution scientist who designed the ocean.
Biosphere 2 has described itself as "the largest self-sustaining ecosystem ever built." The very name is boastful: This is the sequel to Biosphere 1, the planet Earth. The idea is to re-create Earth in smaller form, to build a materially closed, airtight, stable ecosystem that receives nothing from the outside world but sunlight and electricity. The ultimate goal is to show how humans might permanently colonize other planets. The Biospherians even have a place in mind: Mars.
This isn't just an ecological experiment. It's a business. Biosphere 2 is the creation of a private corporation called Space Biospheres Ventures, which hopes to recoup its financial investment through patented spinoff technology. And tourist dollars. It's an "ecopreneurial" project.
But the things the tourists are told on their two-hour tour are far less enlightening than some of the things they aren't told. Such as: Biosphere 2 doesn't work very well.
Biospherians have failed conspicuously at their basic goal of establishing a "self-sustaining" ecosystem with a stable atmosphere maintained by the balanced respiration of plants and animals. In fact, they never came close. Carbon dioxide levels are way too high. And even that is with a bit of fudging: Just hours before the Sept. 26 final closure, Space Biospheres Ventures quietly installed a carbon dioxide scrubber like that used on submarines.
The scrubber is different from the other technology, like the air conditioning, the water pumps, the air circulators, the wave machine and the other electricity-powered devices, since, on another planet or a space station, the electricity could theoretically be supplied by solar energy or some fancy nuclear fusion trick. But the scrubber uses canisters of chemicals, a bulky and non-renewable resource. It's hard to sell a greenhouse as being "self-sustaining" when, without chemical help, the inhabitants might be grabbing their throats and pounding on the windows after a few months. Space Biospheres Ventures didn't reveal the presence of the scrubber until pressed by reporters weeks later.
"Basically what you have now is a submarine with plants in it," says Rocky Stewart, a computer software specialist who quit the project in disgust the day the bionauts were sealed up.
The tourists also aren't told that many mainstream scientists scoff at the experiment, at its grandiosity, the lack of peer review, the absence of a separate biosphere to serve as the "control." "It's not science at all," says Lynn Margulis, who as a pioneer in the field of biospherics is, ironically, revered by the Biospherians. "It's a venture capitalist project which is intrinsically fascinating, but it's not scientific in any way whatsoever."
The most astonishing thing the tourists aren't told is that Biosphere 2 is the outgrowth, after many years and many reincarnations, of a 1970s-vintage counterculture commune that called itself, among other things, the "Synergetic Civilization."
The group was led by a charismatic, domineering man named John Allen. He implored his followers to become "actors and scientists." He told them Western civilization was dead, that the nuclear family was obsolete. He taught them rituals: group howling, silence during meals. He directed their plays. Twenty years ago, the commune was nothing more than a low-budget theater troupe in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Today, several of those commune members form the core of the Biosphere 2 project -- and John Allen watches over everything as director of research and development.
Science, we all like to think, is the last refuge of honest inquiry. It cannot be bought. It cannot be compromised by commercial interests. It cannot be faked. So we like to think. Biosphere 2 is many things, some of them laudable and inspiring, but most of all it is a masterly performance of an entirely new kind of drama.
Call it science theater.
Biosphere 2 had been a darling of the national news media until recently, enjoying primarily positive coverage in most of the major outlets, including The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time, Newsweek, National Geographic World and the television networks. Discover magazine suggested that Biosphere 2 was "the most exciting venture to be undertaken in the U.S. since President Kennedy launched us toward the moon."
Last year, though, the press clippings took on a radically different angle, particularly a three-part series in the Village Voice that attacked the project as scientifically bogus and the inspiration of a doomsday cult obsessed with relocating to Mars. A similarly withering article followed in Life. The leaders of Space Biospheres Ventures say the criticism is unfair -- that there is no cult, and that the project is a grand success.
"It's just nonsense and name-calling," said Mark Nelson, speaking through a video link from inside the enclosure. Nelson is one of four founders of Biosphere 2 and the crew chief of the eight bionauts. "I am in no way associated with a cult, and I would find that even too boring to contemplate."
The Biospherians have an answer for their critics: Galileo was controversial too. And Darwin. The Biospherians are not shy about invoking the great geniuses of science as spiritual compatriots.
"When evolution came out under Darwin's aegis you got great controversy about it," says bionaut Roy Walford.
Ed Bass, the Texas billionaire who is a founder of Biosphere 2 and its major investor, says he has no doubt about the scientific validity of Biosphere 2. "As to the accusatory claims that this is Disneyland: It certainly is. It is built to attract people, to be accessible to people, to stimulate creative thinking and to be educational. It would be a waste to be doing this without giving a means for people to access it. Besides, that's a significant source of revenue," Bass said in a written statement to The Washington Post.
Biosphere 2 has another way of counterattacking critics: threatening legal action. One target is Lou Hawthorne, a Californian who was hired by the University of Phoenix, a for-profit company with ties to Space Biospheres Ventures, to make an educational documentary about Biosphere 2. In the course of his research, Hawthorne became disillusioned: "Eighty percent of Biosphere 2 is beautiful, impressive, legitimate and exciting," he says. "And 20 percent is an outrageous, blatant hoax."
He said he couldn't deliver the puff piece they wanted.
"If anyone's a cult, they're a cult," he said. "If you disagree with the program, you're out of there. They demand utmost loyalty from their core group members; you do not question anything ... you do it. In exchange for that, first of all they pump you up, they say you're a god, you're the world's foremost expert in whatever."
After Hawthorne threatened to sell his footage to the national media, the University of Phoenix and Space Biospheres Ventures sued him, trying to force him to turn over his raw footage and his notes, claiming that Hawthorne is required to do so under his contract, which includes a confidentiality agreement. The university says it paid for the film, and that the final product must be acceptable to Space Biospheres Ventures.
At the time a Washington Post reporter visited Biosphere 2 in early December, it was clear that the recent negative publicity had not yet caught up with the several years of glowing reviews. Tourists seemed to love the place.
"I'm all for it," said Jack Hall of New York City. "Anything that's got to do with science. Not the war-type experiments. The peaceful experiments."
The high desert is a hypnotic, hallucinatory ecosystem. The vegetation looks alien, otherworldly, everything searching for an evolutionary gimmick to survive in an arid ancient seabed.
On a two-lane road 35 miles north of Tucson, a simple sign points the way to Biosphere 2. After a short drive across rangeland, with cattle grazing at roadside, one reaches the gate to the project. Beyond, framed by the Santa Catalina Mountains, is the stunning greenhouse itself, full of Buckminster Fuller triangles and pyramids.
Coming here is like walking into a James Bond movie. There is the futuristic, high-budget set. The exotic location. The mysterious people in red jumpsuits. The secretive, brilliant leader. A plan to conquer Mars. Give James Bond some fancy gadgets and you've got the movie right there.
The public tour of Biosphere 2 features a lot of chickens. Some are in a cage marked "Jungle Fowl." There are also pigs and goats.
Much is made of the fact that the eight Biospherians are living entirely off what is produced on a three-quarter-acre farm. What the tour guide doesn't mention is that they had lots of food stored up, several months' worth, plus vitamins, plus animal feed; this was only revealed recently in a press release by Space Biospheres Ventures. The food was grown on the indoor farm in the previous year or so, SBV said, and it vows that when the bionauts finally exit, they'll leave behind a full supply of food for the next team of bionauts.
A sign overlooking the Biosphere proclaims, "During each closure of Biosphere 2, no air, water, materials -- or people -- will enter or leave the Biosphere." That's not exactly true. Jane Poynter, a bionaut, cut off the tip of her finger shortly after the experiment began, and was taken out the airlock to a hospital for emergency surgery. On her way back in, she carried numerous supplies with her. Space Biospheres Ventures acknowledged the supplies months later, on Jan. 3, and noted that everything she took in could fit in a single duffel bag.
The tour guide says not a word about the CO2 problem or the scrubber, which is hiding somewhere in the rain forest.
Rocky Stewart, the software programmer, said he quit because he felt the scrubber had been used duplicitously.
"It was a big deal, I felt, because the whole thing was supposed to be a closed, sealed, balanced ecosystem, so mechanical systems wouldn't be needed," Stewart says. "I felt they weren't going to let anyone know it was in there. We were told that it was confidential and no one was going to know."
The Biospherians are poseurs, says Stewart. "It's what I call techno-sensationalism. I see the whole thing as just a big cash-in on the ecological movement."
Margret Augustine, chief executive officer of Space Biospheres Ventures, says she felt no compulsion to announce to the public the presence of the carbon dioxide scrubber. "I didn't announce the presence of any of our equipment. It's just one of the pieces of technology in there," she said.
The last stop on the tour is the underwater viewing gallery. A museum-like exhibit is under construction and a subterranean gift shop has already opened. The only catch is that the water doesn't look so good. Is it dying? Getting slimy? No, say the Biospherians.
Abigail Alling, the bionaut in charge of the ocean, was quoted in a Dec. 18 press release as saying, "The ocean is seasonally green due to algae plankton and particulates, which are largely larvae of corals, sponges and crustaceans. In normal reefs, the area is washed by the vast resources of the open ocean; hence you normally do not see such a rich micro-biotic community."
So it's actually better than a normal coral reef.
Walter Adey, who designed the ocean, says the project was rushed and the end result is a great disappointment. The ocean he wanted, he says, "was a highly productive, highly diverse ecosystem. The one we got is low-productivity, low-diversity."
Adey was the prized scientist associated with Biosphere 2, director of the Marine Systems Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution. For five years he labored to build the marsh and the ocean "biomes" inside the greenhouse. He thought it was strictly a science experiment. Only gradually did he come to learn that it was also going to be a tourist attraction. He didn't realize his ocean would have to have, of all things, windows.
He was astonished by this development. Money had been so tight, and there had been so many compromises on the scientific end. And suddenly the administrators of Biosphere 2 were spending tens of thousands of dollars on windows for an underwater viewing gallery! Adey quit the project in September 1990, three months before his contract expired.
"They tried to take a Disney approach," he says now. His voice is pained. He has been silent for months, but feels he can't be silent any longer. Biosphere 2, he says, is shaping up as a disaster.
"I am torn up about it," Adey says. He has always believed in Biosphere 2. He thought it would be a grand advertisement for his scientific field, "synthetic ecology." But the leaders of the project won't listen to the scientists, he says.
"And they're going to sink themselves. And maybe the whole field along with it."
Flight to Mars
"Western civilization isn't simply dying," Biosphere 2 co-founder John Allen once said. "It's dead. We are probing into its ruins to take whatever is useful for the building of the new civilization to replace it."
The quote comes from "The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Counter-Cultures in America," by historian Laurence Veysey, who spent five weeks at Allen's commune in 1971. (Allen would not give an interview for this story, and has kept a low public profile in recent years; in 1985 he told The Washington Post that Veysey was an accurate observer but reached the wrong conclusions.)
Veysey's portrait of the group is harrowing. Allen is depicted as monstrously authoritarian, totally dominating his followers. He would explode into wrath without warning. "Calmly in control of himself one minute, in the next he will be shouting the most hurtful words conceivable in a furious assault upon the ego of some trapped individual," Veysey wrote. These "confrontations" were part of a program of "inner self-development." At the dinner table, no one was allowed to speak. Eventually Allen would break the silence. "Any confessions?" he would sometimes ask.
Veysey describes the commune members as behaving as "a single organic entity." Ordinary human warmth was seen as a "brake in the manufacture of energy" and a lapse into the "false personality" of the outside world. The group was, if anything, politically conservative, and distrustful of "liberals." The nuclear family was to be abhorred; members were expected to renounce their parents. Children were ignored, Veysey said: "They cry pitifully for an attention they seldom receive."
The commune's big break came from a hippie billionaire. Ed Bass was one of the famed Bass brothers, wielders of a $5 billion family fortune from Texas oil and real estate. Ed Bass spent time in the 1970s with Allen at Synergia Ranch. New stories in the mid-1980s raised the allegation that Allen dominated Bass. Bass denied it then and does today as well. "John Allen is now and has been an important adviser to me. He's an exceptional thinker; he can make meaningful patterns out of seemingly unrelated phenomena; he sees the big picture," Bass told The Washington Post last month.
In 1985, Allen said in an interview that there was no cult, or even a group, per se, just a "synergetic collection" of artists, entrepreneurs and ecologists. Allen specifically said he wanted to go to Mars himself. There is a site he had in mind, between a canyon three times as deep as the Grand Canyon and a mountain 89,000 feet high. "It is the most scenic place in the universe, as far as we now know it," he said.
By the mid-1980s, Allen and other members of the Synergetic Civilization had created something called the "Institute of Ecotechnics," and were involved in ecological projects around the globe, funded by Ed Bass. No endeavor was as flamboyant, though, as the one rising at SunSpace Ranch north of Tucson: Biosphere 2.
That this greenhouse was meant as a precursor to a Mars colony was no secret agenda. It remains the overt message of the tour, the slide show and the in-house documentary.
Indeed, Biosphere 2 may have less to do with saving the Earth than with escaping it. There is an unsettling doomsday undercurrent to some of the Biosphere 2 literature, with many references to nuclear war and human extinction. The Biospherians themselves are without exception white, educated and, to judge by their writings, rather enraptured by their own brilliance and heroism. The project resembles the ultimate White Flight fantasy: Instead of fleeing to the suburbs, the dream is to flee to the Red Planet.
The most elaborate detailing of the Mars dream can be found in "Space Biospheres," a book by Allen and Mark Nelson that is sold in the Biosphere 2 gift shops. It says the Mars Base will have a population that "can range from 64 to 80 people." Membership will be restricted: "No one will be accepted into the corporation without a thorough grounding in science and people born into the community will be taught how to become citizens of the world of science as their essential birthright. A critical intellect, taught how to observe, and act as needed will be a survival necessity."
In other words, it's a colony of smart people.
Intelligence is a recurring theme in Biosphere writings; in another article, Allen and Nelson say that their projects will attract "the virile and intelligent of all nations."
One of the motivations for creating Biosphere 2, they write in "Space Biospheres," is "to create living art forms appropriate to the Space Age which celebrate the epic of evolution and which will produce heroes of a new kind -- heroes who are champions of life and explorers of space." The Martian descendants of "Earthians" would undergo their own evolution and adaptation. Eventually, Allen and Nelson write, "Earthians would meet other intelligent life in the universe -- the evolved/adapted Martian progeny of Biosphere 1."
Thus Biosphere 2, though a tentative first step, represents, according to "Space Biospheres," nothing less than a major chapter in a vast cosmological narrative, a story that began with the big bang, continued with formation of galaxies, stars and planets, continued further with the evolution of living things into intelligent technology-wielding beings, and now takes a giant leap as Homo sapiens "transform themselves from localized planetary lifespans to cosmic immortality."
It sounds like the ultimate master plan: to conquer the universe.
Conversations With Bionauts
A Post reporter spoke to three bionauts via a video link from Mission Control to the habitat of Biosphere 2. (The Biospherians speak excitedly of these video hookups, and the significance of the ongoing dialogue between those inside and those outside the greenhouse: "It's the first time that two biospheres have had the chance to communicate," said Robert Hahn, the director of communications and a longtime member of the Allen group.)
The first bionaut on the screen was Abigail Alling, 32, known as Gaie. "I'm really thrilled to be here," she said. "We're going to come to love where we live." She said she keeps in telephone contact with friends and family -- she has a young son. Alling said she wasn't fazed by criticism. "The people who aren't very involved in the project may misunderstand it." What about the CO2 problem? "It's not a danger, it's not a concern, it's not a problem."
Alling said she hopes, when she gets out, to work on her ultimate goal: going to Mars.
Next up: Roy Walford. For a group interested in concepts of "cosmic immortality," he is a wonderful compatriot. Walford, 67, a professor of pathology at UCLA, is a well-known expert in the causes of aging. His theory is that a human being, with the right diet, can live to 120 years of age. Walford has thus produced a book called "The 120-Year Diet," another gift shop item at Biosphere 2.
One of the things he is studying, he said in the interview, is whether the bionauts are aging as rapidly as they would outside the greenhouse. A former employee told The Washington Post he heard Walford declare, a month after the enclosure, that the bionauts had already shown signs of diminished aging. Walford denied saying that. "I can't say anything after one month," he said. It may take a year to get good results, he said.
The final bionaut was the crew chief and project co-founder, Mark Nelson. He was enthusiastic. "It's like being in a fantastically magnificent rain forest and a cathedral at the same time."
He dismissed any suggestion that the project was in trouble. "The fact that there's controversy tells me this is a cutting-edge endeavor," he said.
He said CO2 had "more or less" leveled off at non-threatening levels.
Three days after the interview, the huge lungs of the Biosphere were opened up, and they sucked in a batch of fresh air. This was revealed in a single sentence on the second page of a Dec. 18 press release: "Biosphere 2 took in an additional 10 percent of atmospheric volume following the initial 2 1/2-month testing period."
This was to replace air lost due to leakage, according to Space Biospheres Ventures.
Is this whole thing some kind of ecoscam? A biofraud?
"What's a fraud? Do we take public money? How are we defrauding the public?" Margret Augustine, SBV's chief executive officer, said after the bionaut interviews were over.
"This is a tremendous achievement. Achievements like this don't happen simply," she said.
She said Biosphere 2 has a right not to reveal everything that's going on.
"We are a private business. There's a lot of things that go on here, just as they go on at IBM or Hewlett Packard. ... We are not a museum. We're not a university. We're a business."
Augustine has big plans for Biosphere 2. She said she wants to expand the tourist portion of the project to handle a million visitors a year. She also foresees a resort hotel and conference center. And a Biosphere Space Camp. And a golf course. On environmentally sensitive land. ("Ecologically sound development" is possible, says Ed Bass.)
It's not often you find environmentalists who build golf courses.
In "Space Biospheres," John Allen and Mark Nelson write the following:
"Governing the conception of the Space Biospheres Ventures' project are the following six spheres (or pervasives): the cosmosphere, the historic imperative of going into space; the teleosphere, beauty's esthetic of form and beauty's ethic of happiness (the good); noosphere, the necessity of intelligence, micro-incisive and macro-comprehensive to be capable to deal with a range of cosmic environments that life without advanced technics could neither travel to nor survive in if it arrived there; the biosphere, the producer of energy available to do work, that gives the surplus value that underlies all the higher possibilities; and the equilibrosphere ..."
And so on.
It is rather striking that a group with such daffy New Age jabber could manage to surround itself with reputable scientists from the Smithsonian Institution, NASA, Yale University, the University of Arizona, the Royal Botanical Gardens in London, and other mainstream organizations. Why weren't scientists repulsed by all this talk of virile, intelligent Martians?
There are several possible explanations. Money, for one.
"They have so much more money available than the government," says Gerald Soffen, who headed the unmanned Viking mission to Mars in 1976 and has been a friendly observer of Biosphere 2. "I think they're going to make a real contribution, and I think they will be remembered far longer than some of the conventional, safe things that no one pays attention to."
The outside scientists were enamored of the can-do spirit of the Biospherians. They said they'd build this vast project, and they did it. It didn't take 20 years, as would a government-sponsored research project of this magnitude. They didn't have to spend half their time writing grants, they didn't have to proceed on a step-by-step, measured schedule of inquiry, they didn't have to have umpteen trial runs to make sure the basic scientific knowledge preceded the applied science -- no, they just did it. Build now, ask questions later. How refreshing!
Science, in fact, is often advanced further by amateurs than by the professionals. Perhaps the best comparison would be to Columbus, whose greatest asset was his own nutty belief that there was only 3,000 miles of open sea between Europe and Japan. He was dead wrong, and slammed into a new world. Maybe there is a San Salvador somewhere inside Biosphere 2.
One big name associated with the project is Thomas Lovejoy, assistant secretary for external affairs at the Smithsonian, and an adviser to Biosphere 2. Lovejoy says, "There is a lot of valid science in it." He is part of a scientific review board that is supposed to look at the progress of the project.
Lovejoy acknowledges that the lack of scientific review has been a problem so far: "I think there has been an insufficient amount of communication, scientifically. And that's one of the things I'm working to correct."
The Smithsonian itself issued a press release on Sept. 26, the day the greenhouse was closed up, saying that the institution no longer had any formal involvement with Biosphere 2 and that Lovejoy's advisory role was "as a private citizen and not in conjunction with his duties at the Smithsonian."
Some scientists didn't realize, initially, who these Biospherians were. Stephen O'Brien, a geneticist with the National Cancer Institute, first met them at their villa in France. He figured they were all academics. They knew the jargon. "You don't go up to somebody and say, 'Where'd you get your PhD?' " says O'Brien.
He defends them, though: "There are traditional ways of doing science and there are nontraditional ways. ... What I see in the Biospherians and all the people working there is a tremendous enthusiasm for exploring the unknown."
This, then, is the paradox of Biosphere 2: It is both awful and wonderful. And if Walter Adey is right, it can be saved, with immediate radical action, such as aborting the current enclosure, making changes and starting again. Top scientists on the project have spoken recently to Ed Bass, who is based in Fort Worth, trying to enlighten him about the magnitude of problems at Biosphere 2.
Aborting the current mission would be a public relations embarrassment. It seems to be a Biosphere doctrine never to admit error.
As press coverage has grown more critical, the Biospherians have cracked down all the harder on any dissent. Employees in November were required to sign a lengthy form promising not to talk to the press, or sue the company, because that might damage the "good name of the employer," which, the employee is forced to "recognize," has invested immense sums of money in "an environmental research and development facility without parallel on earth."
The Reality of Mars
You could argue that Biosphere 2 is harmless. No one is being killed. The Treasury hasn't been raided. If anything, it may be boosting interest in ecology, and the concept of self-sustaining ecosystems in a world that desperately needs to achieve sustainability. So what if it's illusory around the edges? So what if there's more hype than substance? In the end, everyone's a winner.
The stronger argument, though, is that truth matters. That people have a right to know what's real and what's fake.
Perhaps people have a right to know that human habitation of Mars is so far away, so unlikely, and itself so aesthetically and environmentally unappetizing that it is bizarre to think of such a place as an escape from our earthly problems. The sad fact is that Mars is a horrible place. There is no breathable air, no drinkable water. Gravity is slight. It is every bit as nasty as you'd expect a place to be that is about 50 million miles farther from the sun than the Earth. Only by comparison to the furnace of Venus, the gaseous impermanence of Jupiter and Saturn, or the icy Jovian and Saturnian moons, does Mars seem remotely appealing.
A simple obstacle has prevented a Mars mission to date: There's no reason to go. Robot probes could satisfy the craving for scientific knowledge. If earthlings needed room to live, they would have better luck in Antarctica. No Martian resources could possibly reimburse the cost of a mission there. The only reason to go would be to satisfy some primitive itch. Some need to conquer. Some need to be achieve "cosmic immortality."
A question the tour guide should be asked: When humans go into space, who should be allowed on the journey? The richest people? The smartest people? Should it be the kind of people who brought us Biosphere 2?
The Biospherians don't talk much of love. They don't talk of human kindness or charity. They talk of intelligence, power, the will to achieve. They talk of science: It is their god.
Mars burns in the clear western skies, an orange beacon, sunlight reflecting off those unimaginably distant deserts. John Allen once said he wanted to die there. He won't. He -- and the fantastic dream at the core of Biosphere 2 -- will inevitably die here on Earth.
A planet that, for everyone else, has been good enough.