161. Planet In a Bottle

30 Jun

Biosphere 2 was ambitious, and the first of its kind. The aim was to create a second, slightly more portable earth, a closed system you could put anywhere which would allow people to survive, growing their own food and living off of it even the oxygen was recycled. A totally closed experiment to test whether or not we could live on another planet.

The site is spread over 3 hermetically sealed acres with double airlocks for assured safety. Inside were replicated all the world’s necessary environments. A small ocean with a wave machine and beach,  grassland savannah, tropical rainforest, farm and an additional mangrove wetland. Plants were chosen to remove carbon dioxide from the air and replace it with oxygen.

All 14 before the final selection

A group of fourteen people initially held a practice run. Each sported a fetching red jumpsuit made by the former maker of Marilyn Monroe’s dresses. Out of the group, eight were chosen for the full thing. A two-year stint in a completely closed system, just themselves and the farm, in a giant glass structure in the Arizona Desert.

8:15 am, 26 September 1991 all eight of the red-clad ‘bionauts’ climbed through the airlock, leaving behind them their recently consumed breakfasts and waving crowds. Behind them the airlocks closed and so began the $150 million experiment. Over the next two years the groups would survive together and be self-sufficient, exit only came for the ill. It was a bizarre affair.

Initially it was a media frenzy, Biosphere 2 was the first of its kind and tourists came by the busload to serve their voyeuristic needs, staring through the glass walls at the toiling human specimens held within. This activity itself went on to inspire a small cultural revolution, leading directly to the creation of Big Brother, an extremely popular Reality Show which let viewers in on the lives of ‘housemates’ who were people chosen to live in a house together and perform tasks. It is easy to see the similarities.

The reason for the media frenzy was simple, the whole mission was hope. It was a way out of times which were instrumental in deconstructing the safe view of the world and replacing it with omnipresent fear, fear of nuclear and fear of the planet. It was a saving grace, it is even shown in the name, Whilst the first building of its kind, it was still called Biosphere 2, it was a small gesture really. The structure was heralded as: Greenhouse Ark, Eden Revisited and the Planet in a Bottle. It was all symbolic, Biosphere 1 was earth, biosphere 2 was our attempts to replicate it, and thus master it. In a time of fear people wanted control. Control to them meant safety.

Problems did emerge. The group was composed entirely of middle-class citizens with no farming experience. Despite reading the likes of How to Grow More Vegetables than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, they lacked any practical experience. Even though the land had been pre-cultivated for three months, they still couldn’t make it work. They began to starve. Without food they lacked the energy to grow it, and it became a vicious cycle. Sally Silverstone the food and systems manager said:

“It was very stressful, especially with a crew like that…[they were] essentially white middle-class, upper-middle-class Western individuals who had never been short of food in their whole life—it was a tremendous shock.”

Surviving on 1750 calories a day and a diet of porridge, beets, carrots and sweet potatoes their weights fell rapidly and the beta-carotene excess caused their skin to turn orange, close to but not quite matching their fine red jumpsuits.

The effects of near-starvation on the Doctor

Food soon became their primary concern. Hunger drew the group to acts of sabotage, bananas were stolen from the underground storeroom. The storeroom was locked. They all begged mission control for more food but the medical expert on staff had his own motives and let their weights further plummet. He was testing out his own healthy starvation diet.’ With mice the drop in weight was healthy, and so it seemed with humans. He reported back to mission control that the lower food intake was actually keeping them healthier than they were outside. So starvation continued. There were unexpected side effects. Although blood pressure and pulses became closer to a healthy standard, the blood became awash with toxins. As the fat was lost from everyone, the dissolved toxins absorbed within were released and transferred to the bloodstream.

With the health and lack of food, they simply thought of food, having recurring dreams of McDonald’s hamburgers, lobster, sushi, Snickers-bars, cheesecake,bagels, croissants, and whiskey. They thought in terms of food too. Trading personal possessions for food, for food was ranked above all. This low-calorie intake impacted on them, making everyone sluggish and irritable. Arguments occurred more frequently and the eight split into two subgroups who kept apart, only meeting, coincidentally, at meal times where they would watch the Arizona sunset through the glass walls.

After the first six months the crew had lost on average 14% of their body mass. Then air became a problem. At the beginning of the second year oxygen levels fell to such a degree that the bionauts began to feel light-headed, carbon dioxide rose to twelve times those of the outside. Oxygen had to be pumped in twice as the concrete base of Biosphere 2 was absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide, an unknown, and unconsidered factor.

After the two years, eight gaunt figures emerged from the ‘Planet in a Bottle,’ they were still snappily dressed, but instead of being filled with breakfast they craved nothing more. They sported more efficient metabolisms and enhanced immune systems but that did not factor it. The whole two-year experiment was seen as a failure. Biosphere 2 couldn’t match Biosphere 1. It was neither self-sufficient nor autonomous. Otherworldy occupation was, and still is a pipe dream. It becomes more possible with each passing hour, but we have to strike the correct balance.

Biosphere 2 was judged by Time magazine to be ‘one of the hundred worst ideas of the twentieth century.’

As a note of interest the aforementioned Ms Silverstone wrote a cookbook using only ingredients grown in Biosphere 2, titled Eating In: From the Field to the Kitchen in Biosphere 2. It contained 48 ‘Biospherian’ recipes which anyone could cook.

Further Reading

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Posted by on June 30, 2011 in Articles, Trivia


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