In the early ’90s, a group of volunteer researchers lived for two years inside a giant biodome in the Arizona desert, tasked with taking care of the plants and animals inside, growing (and slaughtering) their own food and creating their own oxygen. The goal of the Biosphere 2 experiment was to make a self-sustaining miniature Earth — a dress rehearsal for when humans colonize Mars or the real Earth’s environment collapses.
PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author T.C. Boyle (“World’s End”) riffs on Biosphere 2 with his 16th novel, “The Terranauts,” the story of eight men and women living in a sealed glass bubble called E2 for two years in the mid-’90s. It’s told through the perspectives of three characters: two on the “inside” and one on E2’s Mission Control support staff.
Although Boyle’s characters are not based on the real-life biospherians, there are a lot of similarities between E2 and Biosphere 2, such as the red jumpsuits and the media circus surrounding the experiments. Here are some tidbits to take with you to Boyle’s talk at Politics and Prose on Tuesday, the day of the book’s release.
God and money
Like Elon Musk’s SpaceX project, Biosphere 2 was funded by a billionaire — Texas oil magnate Ed Bass, who worked closely with the mastermind behind the project, John P. Allen, an engineer and metallurgist. In Boyle’s book, the billionaire takes a backseat, while the founder is nicknamed G.C. (for “God the Creator”). There are strong biblical overtones running throughout the story: “Science and religion converge somewhere out there in space,” Boyle says. “But [experiments like Biosphere 2, E2 and SpaceX are] all so exclusive, like a new Noah’s Ark.” The media often accused the real biospherians of being a cult, at least in part because they were all members of Allen’s theater workshops before going into the biosphere. In Boyle’s novel, the crew members put on plays while living inside, just as the real biospherians did.
Boyle’s novel covers just the second stint out of the 50 consecutive two-year missions that are planned for E2. The goal of the experiment is to show, in 100 years, what a man-made Earth would look like. This was the exact plan for Biosphere 2, which bombed after only a couple years and was written off by many as unscientific — notions that echo in Boyle’s book. “I was completely sucked into the [Biosphere 2] project when it happened,” Boyle says, “but I was pulled out of it once they broke closure, which was within 12 days.” That was when one of the biospherians stepped out to seek medical attention after badly cutting her finger, and returned with outside food and supplies — negating the entire purpose of the experiment. “It wasn’t really science,” Boyle says. A similar breach occurs in Boyle’s novel, often alluded to with disgust by the crew-member narrators.
The world in a box
In addition to their habitat and organic farm, the E2 researchers have to care for flora and fauna in five “biomes” — small areas simulating a rainforest, a savanna, a desert, a marsh and an ocean with a coral reef — just as the real-life biospherians did. Although there are no people locked inside anymore, Biosphere 2 is still up and running. Maintained by the University of Arizona, it’s now a research facility, used for experiments pertaining to the effects of climate change. (E2 has a somewhat different fate.) “Biosphere 2 is open to the public and it’s a stunning structure,” says Boyle, who visited the facility as part of his research. “Looking back, I admire what they did — attempting to replicate our whole world.”
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Tue., 7 p.m., free.
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