Photo: CGP Grey/Wikimedia Commons

A 21st Century 'Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth'

The strange story of a decades-long quest to recreate Earth in miniature and why it’s integral to our future as a species on and off the planet.

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Jun 10 2017, 1:00pm

Photo: CGP Grey/Wikimedia Commons

On September 26, 1991, journalists from around the world flocked to Oracle, a small town tucked away in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains in southern Arizona. They had come to witness the beginning of an unprecedented experiment that would see eight scientists isolate themselves in the largest closed-system ever constructed: the Biosphere 2.

For the next two years, these scientists would live together in the massive vivarium without any physical contact with the outside world. They grew their own fruits and vegetables, performed experiments, and did their best to maintain the five biomes—desert, savannah, ocean, rainforest and wetlands—that occupied the three-acre facility. The scientists' primary goal was to test the feasibility of using biospheres as living spaces for long duration space missions. The idea was that if we were ever going to seriously consider colonizing Mars, we'd have to figure out a way to create sustainable habitats that fulfilled our needs as a species.

In many ways the experiments carried out by the original eight Biospherians were totally unsuccessful. The two-year long experiment was plagued by infighting among the scientists, malnutrition, and other social and environmental pitfalls. But 26 years later, the Biosphere is still operating, albeit in a much different capacity. Although it no longer hosts residents, the Biosphere 2 continues to carry out unprecedented Earth systems experiments and stands as a monument to the ongoing, decades-long quest to recreate the Earth in miniature.

The story of this journey is the story of renegade mathematicians and millionaire cult leaders, of space stations and underground lairs. It began with the realization of the uniqueness of our planet and was sustained by the unrelenting dream of turning humans into a multi-planetary species. It is the story of unfathomable successes and dismal failures, but the lessons learned along the way may very well hold the key to our future.

AN 'OPERATING MANUAL FOR SPACESHIP EARTH'

The dream of recreating Earth in miniature might be said to have truly begun in 1968 with the publication of Buckminster Fuller's seminal work on sustainability and the future, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

By all accounts, Fuller was not your typical scientist, and his idiosyncrasies manifested early in his life. He was expelled from Harvard twice, first for spending all his money partying with a vaudeville troupe and then for "irresponsibility and lack of interest." Although Fuller may not have been cut out for the university life, after his second expulsion he quickly established himself as a 20th century renaissance man of sorts by dabbling in everything from cartography and experimental automobiles to architecture and mathematics.

Fuller at Black Mountain College, North Carolina. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his successes in a number of diverse fields and areas of study, it was Fuller's Operating Manual which would come to define the life and work of the profoundly original thinker. In this text, he outlined his conception of Spaceship Earth and the human species as its crew. According to Fuller, Earth is a unique spaceship, insofar as its supplies couldn't be restocked and without the proper maintenance it would break down beyond repair.

In light of this, Fuller developed synergetics, a field of study that considers a system to be larger than the sum of its parts, thereby implying that it is impossible to understand a given system only by considering its parts in isolation. In short, Fuller's synergetics champions a holistic approach to thinking about systems, particularly our own planet and the human societies that inhabit it.

Today, synergetics is considered a fringe area of scientific study, despite its many useful applications in matters both practical and theoretical. One of the most interesting of these was developed by Fuller himself, who applied his theory of synergetics to develop his famous geodesic domes. These structures, which look like an igloo with a façade made of triangles, were developed by Fuller as an alternative living space to the cubical buildings we are so familiar with today.

According to Amy Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard who worked closely with Fuller near the end of his life, these domes are essentially an application of synergetics to geometry and were Fuller's attempt to help our species live more in accordance with the natural rhythm of things.

"The basic idea of synergetic geometry in Bucky's mind was to understand how nature worked," Edmondson told me. "He saw the superposition of cubes, or cubical thinking, as composed by man but not necessarily how nature made structuring decisions. Rather, nature made structuring decisions by using the least amount of energy to produce results."

Photo courtesy of author

In this sense, Fuller's geodesic dome lived up to its intended purpose. As far as engineering goes, geodesic domes require hardly any materials, meaning they are lightweight and cost effective to produce, but also incredibly strong for their weight. Fuller had envisioned the structures as a possible solution to humanity's housing crisis, and although this idea never fully took off, the geodesic dome did find currency among some pretty diverse populations.

Not only did the geodesic dome become emblematic of the late 60s and early 70s counterculture, but it was also endorsed by the US Army, which used the structures as sturdy, temporary buildings which could be flown in and out of an area by helicopter. The idea also became a symbol of a sustainable future in the popular imagination, thanks in large part to the use of a geodesic "biosphere" as home of the American pavilion during the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, as well as its use as a centerpiece at Epcot, Walt Disney's foray into utopia construction.

Grow chamber at Biosphere 2. Photo courtesy of author

'EARTH IN A LITTLE BOX'

The full implications of Fuller's ideas about synergetics wouldn't really start to emerge until the mid 60s, which saw the birth of the first scientific undertakings to created closed ecosystems that were capable of sustaining human life. In most cases, these systems were developed with the intention of being used on long duration crewed space missions.

The first such project began in the Soviet Union in 1965 with BIOS-1, a small underground structure in Siberia capable of regenerating the atmosphere for one person. Over the next seven years, Soviet scientists further refined the system, which culminated in BIOS-3 in the early 70s. This life support system was divided into four different compartments: a living area for a crew of up to 3 people; an algae cultivator for recycling carbon dioxide; and two were used for growing vegetables that also contributed roughly a quarter of the oxygen needed to sustain life in the compound.

Only three crewed experiments were ever carried out in the BIOS-3 and the longest only lasted for a period of six months. Still, the Soviet system was truly groundbreaking and remarkably efficient, and went a long way to prove the feasibility of designing a closed life supporting system. Similar to experiments that would come decades later, such as the Biosphere 2, the crews that inhabited BIOS-3 were almost completely isolated from the world. Their only contact with persons outside the chamber occurred via telephone or through a viewing port in the facility, or when scientific experiments were passed through an airlock chamber.

Shortly after the conclusion of the Soviet BIOS experiment in the mid-1980s, NASA began working on its own organically based life-support experiments. Known as the BioHome, this 45-foot long facility looked more like a mobile home than a bunker. It was developed as part of the agency's Clean Air Study that aimed to compile a list of air-filtering plants that could be used to offset the effects of "sick building syndrome," or the tendency of closed-off indoor spaces to harbor air pollutants.

In particular, NASA was investigating the possibility of organic solutions to indoor air pollution on space stations such as the Skylab, which was found to have dozens of volatile organic compounds in the air that were released by the synthetic materials used to make the space station. When these toxic compounds, which included formaldehyde and benzene, become concentrated in closed environments, they can make the occupants of that space feel incredibly sick.

From BioHome memo: "Indoor air purification system combining houseplants and activated carbon." Image: NASA

The BioHome project culminated in a 1989 report by Bill Wolverton, an environmental scientist who had made a name for himself in the 60s by discovering that marsh plants in Florida were capable of cleaning up the Agent Orange that had leaked into the area from a nearby test facility.

"Since man's existence on Earth depends upon a life support system involving an intricate relationship with plants and their associated microorganisms, it should be obvious that where he attempts to isolate himself in tightly sealed buildings away from this ecological system, problems will arise," Wolverton wrote in the report. "The answer to these problems is obvious. If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature's life support system. This is not easily achieved, however."

After years of investigating different combinations of plant species and soil combinations, Wolverton and his colleagues working on the BioHome found that a number of houseplants placed in an activated carbon medium were effective at reducing indoor air pollution. Still, as Wolverton noted in some concluding remarks on the study, "as NASA looks toward the possibility of sealing people inside a Space Station, or moon base, along with large numbers of plants the ecology of such a closed environment (interactions between man, plants, microorganisms, soil, etc.) must be further evaluated."

Read More: The Stars Down to Earth

In the three decades that have elapsed since the commencement of the BioHome experiment, NASA's interest in figuring out controlled ecological life support systems, or how to "put the earth in a little box," hasn't waned. If anything, the task has become more urgent than ever, as the agency has begun to plot out long duration missions to Mars, which could require isolating humans in closed environments for years at a time.

Directly after the conclusion of the Clean Air Survey, the European Space Agency launched the Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) in 1989 with the goal of developing a regenerative life support system for long-term human space missions. Inspired by function of terrestrial lake ecosystems, MELiSSA is designed to supply human inhabitants of the system with the requisite water, food, and oxygen necessary to sustain themselves, while only requiring energy to be fed into the system (as opposed to bringing in food or oxygen from outside the system).

In essence, MELiSSA is a closed loop comprised of five "compartments," each of which plays a critical role in the functioning of the artificial ecosystem. In one of these compartments is the crew, which consumes water, food and oxygen, and then produces waste based on this intake. The organic waste from food and water (feces and urine) is fed into Compartment 1, where bacteria work on breaking down the waste. The carbon dioxide produced by the crew is fed into Compartment 4, where photosynthetic bacteria and higher plants use this CO2 to produce more food, water, and oxygen for the crew.

After the bacteria in Compartment 1 are finished breaking down the human waste products, the resulting material is fed into Compartment 2, where different types of bacteria remove the carbon compounds produced by the bacteria in Compartment 1. The product of this process is then fed into Compartment 3, where still another type of bacteria creates a nitrogen rich medium that can be used to sustain the higher plants in Compartment 4.

The end result is a nearly "total conversion of the organic wastes and CO2 to oxygen, water and food." In 2009, the European Space Agency opened up a MELiSSA pilot facility in Barcelona, where researchers have been working on improving the efficiency of this system for the last eight years in an effort to establish a regenerative life support system for future human settlements on the moon or Mars.

THE BIOSPHERE 2

At around the same time MELiSSA was getting underway in Europe, a millionaire in Arizona was hatching his own plans for an unprecedented regenerative life support facility. This millionaire's name was Ed Bass, and he had agreed to invest $30 million in a partnership with John Allen, who dreamed of recreating Earth in miniature—and so Space Biosphere Ventures was born.

Prior to his foray into "biospherics," Allen ran an ecovillage in New Mexico called Synergia Ranch, which he had founded in the late 1960s. As the name of his ranch suggests, Allen was intensely interested in the life and work of Buckminster Fuller, whom he had met during his time at Harvard, and Synergia served as a retreat where visitors could engage in experiments in gardening and theatre, approached through a blend of Buddhism and Fuller's ideas about Spaceship Earth.

Bass first met Allen in the 1970s while participating in theatre workshops at Synergia. Intrigued by Allen's ecological philosophy, Bass became more involved in Synergia life and eventually became the director of the Institute for Ecotechnics, an organization dedicated to radical ecology projects that was founded by Allen and bankrolled by Bass. This was the foundation for the Biosphere 2 and by 1984, the project to create a regenerative closed ecosystem—and in Bass' words, "gain an understanding of the biosphere, the operating system of the Planet Earth—was underway."

Bass' initial investment into Biosphere 2 consisted of $20 million, ostensibly to create a 3-acre living space that would help humans live on Mars. Allen, however, had a slightly different idea, and in The Biosphere Catalogue, a 1985 booklet published through Bass' Synergetic Press, he imagined a Biosphere archipelago called Refugia that could be used as refuges for the elite in the aftermath of nuclear war or widespread ecological collapse.

Despite these ideological differences, both Bass and Allen were motivated by Fuller's ideas of synergetics and agreed that the Biosphere 2 would offer unprecedented insights into the complex internetworking of Earth systems. After seven years of construction and a massively inflated budget (the Biosphere would end up costing Bass some $150 million), in 1991, the Biosphere 2 opened its doors to its first research team.

The team consisted of four men and four women from various scientific backgrounds, who had agreed to spend the next two years in the Biosphere, completely physically isolated from the outside world. They were to be a proof of concept that it was in fact possible to create a completely closed and self-sustaining ecosystem—in other words, that it was possible to recreate the biosphere, Earth's natural life support system, artificially. They would grow their own crops and spend their days performing experiments on the five biomes within the facility, which were meant to approximate the major biomes on Earth: ocean, savannah, marsh, rainforest, desert.

Photo courtesy of author

Despite the ambitions of the project, it didn't take long for things to start going wrong. As far as the experiments were concerned, there were massive fish die offs in the ocean system that clogged the filtration system and population explosions of local species of cockroaches and ants that had been sealed in the biosphere. Moreover, plant respiration rates were higher than photosynthesis, resulting in a slow decrease in oxygen levels so that at one point the Biospherians had an oxygen availability similar to that of living at around 13,000 feet. This prompted the experiment's managers to inject oxygen into the system during its final year, violating the purpose of the experiment, which was to prove that the biosphere was capable of sustaining a closed ecological system.

Then there was the instance where an injured crew member was allowed to leave the experiment and return, and brought in new supplies. Although the crew alleged that these supplies were limited to plastic bags, several reporters claimed it also included food supplies, which would make sense considering the crew was operating on a significantly calorie-restricted diet due to their less than successful attempt at sustenance farming. With 10 months left in the experiment, the crew began dipping into their emergency food supplies to supplement their meager diet.

"What they were trying to accomplish had never been done on this scale."

But even if all the scientific parts of the experiment had gone as planned, there was still the human element of the experiment to contend with. According to Jane Poynter, one of the original Biospherians on the first mission, before the mission began, the eight crew members prepared for their long duration stay inside the Biosphere by doing month-long isolation stays in places like the outback of Australia or onboard a ship with a skeleton crew. Although Poynter said she felt prepared for her 2-year long stay in the vivarium, it was only a matter of months before conflicts among the crew members began. Tensions eventually became so high that the crew had essentially broken into two factions and refused to speak with one another.

The second and final Biosphere 2 experiment that involved human subjects began in 1994. It was only supposed to last ten months, but the second experiment was even more of a dismal failure than the first. Only a month after the mission began, Bass had to serve a restraining order to members of the Biosphere management team and then brought on board Stephen Bannon—yes, that Stephen Bannon—as the new manager of the project.

Bannon had previously looked into overspending at the Biosphere, and a handful of Biospherians from the first mission were concerned that he would put the new Biospherians in danger via cost cutting. This prompted two members from the first mission to fly back to Arizona and break into the Biosphere by opening an airlock door and breaking five panels of glass to warn the Biospherians about Bannon. Shortly thereafter, the captain of the second Biosphere mission left the project due to a family emergency and the second mission was ended four months early.

"The human dynamic side of the biosphere experiment ended up dominating the overall equation more than the science," John Adams, deputy director of Biosphere 2, told me. "What they were trying to accomplish had never been done on this scale. If you had to point fingers as to where things didn't work out well, it was probably their communication. But the research that came out of these experiments really sparked a lot of interest in the larger scientific community."

After these two highly publicized and embarrassing failures, Space Biosphere Ventures dissolved and the future of the construction was uncertain. But in 1995, the facility was purchased outright by Columbia University, which used it for Earth systems experiments until 2005. Again, the future of the Biosphere was in jeopardy, this time at risk of being demolished and turned into a strip mall, but in 2007 the University of Arizona took over the facility and continues doing research to this day.

Photo courtesy of author

In the last decade, the Biosphere has changed a lot and has established itself as a leader in ecological science, at a time when the future of our planet and its inhabitants is more uncertain than ever. According to Adams, one of the main points of pride of the Biosphere is its Landscape Evolution Observatory, or LEO, the world's largest Earth science experiment.

The experiment occupies the three halls inside the Biosphere that were previously used to harvest food for the Biospherians and consists of three massive trays of volcanic basalt suspended in the air at a slight incline. Each tray is equipped with 2000 sensors that collect data on how water moves through the environment. Periodically, sprinklers suspended above the trays will turn on, allowing researchers to simulate anything from a light rain to a torrential downpour, and researchers can study how rainfall makes a landscape evolve over the course of a decade.

Other than LEO, the rest of the biosphere's biomes remain more or less in their original state. The trees are larger and a lot of the underbrush has disappeared, but the biomes are still producing incredibly useful data for the international team of scientists who make use of the facility. The ocean biome, for instance, has been great at showing how rising ocean acidity—the result of increasing atmospheric CO2 levels—can devastate coral reef and other creatures vulnerable to calcification, such as oysters or clams.

Adams and his colleagues are using the other aspects of the Biosphere to explore future directions in sustainability. For example, one of the Biosphere's "lungs," a massive geodesic dome that would automatically regulate air pressure in the Biosphere when it housed human subjects, is being turned into a vertical farming space, which will be used to grow produce for sale and research, as well as for public outreach and education.

Adams has been at the Biosphere 2 for 20 years, beginning his career at this unique research facility as a lowly intern and slowly working his way up to his current position as director. According to Adams, his uniquely long view of both the facility and the environments it's meant to simulate has had a profound effect on the way he thinks about Spaceship Earth.

"It's really humbling when you begin to see the sensitivities of Earth systems and realize how little we truly understand those systems," Adams told me as we walked through the Biosphere. "There are so many variables and you begin to realize that a subtle change in any one of them can have a big impact on the whole mechanism. In a sense, what's happening in here you can imagine happening outside and you see how we have significant impacts on the systems we're dependent on."

As Adams pointed out, in addition to all the valuable research being done at the Biosphere, one if its most important attributes is that it shows the complexity of the natural world in a very visceral way. Based on the failure of the human experiments, it is tempting to think that a holistic, synergetic understanding of Spaceship Earth may be an impossible goal, and perhaps this is the case. Either way, it shouldn't be a point of despair.

"It's really humbling when you begin to see the sensitivities of Earth systems and realize how little we truly understand those systems."

Rather, acknowledging the unfathomable complexity of Spaceship Earth compels us to think about the way we inhabit and move through space. It tempers the hubris of our species, which has convinced itself that with enough research funds and engineering knowhow, we will be able to perfectly recreate this unique spaceship that predated up by billions of years.

In all probability, due to the exacting force of climate change, we'll end up in a scenario much like the Ship of Theseus, where we are dismantling and recreating Spaceship Earth at the same time, and it will ultimately become a vessel that is both natural and artificial—not so much by design, but by necessity.

In any case, from BIOS-3 to MELiSSA to Biosphere 2, the main message has been that humans are inextricably linked to a given ecosystem and the way that humans engage with that system cannot be thought separately from the design of the system of itself. For better or worse, we are condemned to simultaneously be the mechanics, pilots, and passengers of this spaceship called Earth. And it's time to start acting like it.