_The Arizona Daily Star_ (Tucson), Sunday, September 19, 1993, pp. 1A,12A Biosphere 2's im

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_The Arizona Daily Star_ (Tucson), Sunday, September 19, 1993, pp. 1A,12A Biosphere 2's imperfect mission Imports may tarnish project's successes By Jim Erickson The Arizona Daily Star In the latest edition of the Biosphere 2 quarterly newsletter, research director John B. Corliss recalls the night last January when oxygen was injected into the 3.15-acre terrarium from a tanker truck. Oxygen levels had been dropping gradually but relentlessly since the two-year experiment began on Sept. 26, 1991, and the eight crew members reported sleep problems and nearly constant fatigue. Around midnight on that cold January night, while vapors rose from the liquid oxygen truck outside the glass-and-steel structure near Oracle, the crew gathered around the injection port to breathe the oxygen-rich air. "It was a time of sadness for the biospherians, in a way, because the goal they had set for themselves was perfection--absolutely no replenishment from the outside world," Corliss wrote. If zero replenishment is considered perfection for Biosphere 2, then the two-year maiden voyage, which ends next Sunday, was an extremely imperfect endeavor. Biosphere 2's airlock doors opened 27 times during the 24-month "closure," and *thousands* of items were brought inside the "sealed" miniworld. Among them: 40 pounds of peanut seed, Sominex and Vivarin, vitamins for the crew, makeup, mouse traps, a welding torch, 11 pounds of protein powder, spare parts and tools, predatory insects for the farm, a computer, a professional video camera, radios, telephones and a blender. A complete list of the items that entered Biosphere 2 was obtained by The Arizona Daily Star from Space Biospheres Ventures, the company that built and operates the $150 million tourism and research complex. The airlock is to be unsealed for the 28th time on Wednesday, when research samples will be removed from Biosphere 2 and supplies will be sent inside. These exchanges began in July 1992 and have occurred at least twice a month since last November. They have become so routine that they are, in fact, referred to as "routine import/exports" by Space Biospheres Ventures. Exchanges redefined project Though the exchanges have become commonplace, they have redefined a project that used to be billed by the company as "the largest airtight, self-sustaining, life-support system ever built." Given the oxygen injections and the truckloads of supplies that have entered the big greenhouse, no one can argue that Biosphere 2 is a completely self-sustaining system. Well, most people wouldn't try to make that argument. "We have achieved self-sustainability," Corliss said in an interview Friday. "I'm saying that because we are so close to it that we are confident we'll be able to achieve it. As far as I'm concerned, our goals have been marvelously achieved." Blemished achievements But the repeated imports seem to take the shine off some of the chief accomplishments of the first two years, achievements that will be trumpeted by Space Biospheres Ventures in the days leading up to "re-entry into Biosphere 1": * *The system operated for two years with no major breakdowns.* Broken equipment was sent out for repair, and replacements were brought in for equipment that could not be repaired. Motors, valves, pumps, sensors, circuit boards, switches, spools of wire, fans and filters were taken in, along wth tools needed to install them. The world will never know what would have happened without this intervention. * *Crew members fed themselves with food grown on a half-acre farm, without pesticides and despite two very cloudy winters.* True, but they started with a three-month supply of food, then imported tens of thousands of predatory insects to save pest-ravaged crops. They imported tomato, cucumber, squash, lettuce, millet and bean seeds, and 40 pounds of peanut seeds. They brought in 240 liters of horticultural oil, vitamins, 11 pounds of protein powder for the crew and irrigation equipment. * *A healthy atmosphere was maintained with no buildup of harmful trace gases.* A healthy atmosphere was maintained by injecting oxygen twice--once in January and again this month--and by removing excess carbon dioxide with a mechanical recycler. The recycler broke down after the first winter, but replacement parts were brought in from the outside. Original goals were modified The biospherians used to be fond of saying that only information and energy--information in the form of electronic signals and energy in the form of electricity and sunshines--would enter Biosphere 2 during the two-year experiment. Things haven't worked out that way, but Corliss said the company now tries to limit imports to items that are "information-rich." "What we try to do is only transfer information across the boundary," he said. While he could not define an "information-rich" object, he provided a few examples: seeds for different agricultural crops, insect pests, computer boards and a pump. "When you send in predatory insects, you're sending in genetic information along with the bug," he said. "A pump is really information-rich if it's gone, and a board for a computer is an information-rich piece of matter." Corliss insisted that "nothing has been imported that was vital to the project, without which we would not have reached the two-year goal." What about the armies of predatory insects and the seed? "Whether they made a difference, I don't know," he said. "We might have had to import food, I don't know." The "routine import/exports" began seven days after Biosphere 2's now-defunct scientific advisory committee released its assessment of the project's research program in July 1992. Until the report came out, the airlock doors had remained shut--except on Oct. 11, 1991, when crew member Jane Poynter left for finger surgery and returned later in the day with a duffel bag containing supplies. The scientific advisory committee, headed by Smithsonian Institution biologist Thomas E. Lovejoy, concluded that the Biosphere 2 research effort was plagued by poorly defined goals, excessive secrecy and a lack of qualified personnel. Those findings led to the hiring of Corliss, an oceanographer who headed the 1977 diving expedition that discovered an abundance of exotic animal life in 8,000-foot waters off the Galapagos Islands. The Lovejoy committee also stated that the desire to maintain complete closure of Biosphere 2 had unnecessarily restricted the export of research samples and the import of necessary scientific equipment and new species of plants and animals. "This project does't need to get caught up in an overly mythical belief in total, inviolate closure," Lovejoy said when the report was released. The doors opened a week later. But total, inviolate closure is what Space Biospheres Ventures promised in the mid 1980s, when Biosphere 2 was still just a gleam in Ed Bass' eye. Bass, a Texas billionaire and self-styled "ecopreneur," bankrolled the Biosphere 2 project. Inviolate closure was how Biosphere 2 was sold to the public. Sure, Space Biospheres Ventures also said that Biosphere 2 would be used to study biogeochemical cycling, but most people didn't understand or care about that. Captured imagination What captured the public's imagination was the idea that eight people would try to survive two years under glass, cut off from the outside world, raising crops, butchering pigs and breathing oxygen supplied by the greenery. Biosphere 2 would be a "materially closed" ecological system, the company pledged. "The initial full closure of Biosphere 2 involves the entrance of an eight-member team of researchers--termed Biospherians--who will attempt to live inside the airtight structure for two years to test the miniature biosphere's ability to maintain the life environment for the 3,800 inhabitant species of plants and animals," states a 1990 Space Biospheres Ventures news release. "No air, water or nutrients will cross the airtight boundary of space frame and glass between Biosphere 2 and the surrounding biosphere of Earth," the release states. The rules have changed, and now Biosphere 2 is something else entirely. "Goals are just something you dream up at the time, based on what you know," Corliss said of the policy change. "Biosphere 2 has evolved and changed, that's certainly true. That's the kind of organization this is." In the late 1980s, Biosphere 2 was touted as a prototype space habitat. It was just the kind of self-contained, self-sustaining environment that would be needed on a permanently manned space station or on the surface of another planet, according to Space Biospheres Ventures. The company also envisioned a day when a series of isolated, protected biospheres would provide a refuge and preserve for endangered species, providing both a means of survival and reintroduction in the future. "Space Biospheres Ventures looks to have the capacity to begin to market and produce biospheric syustems by 1992," states a company news release from 1988. "Potential clients would include space programs, universities, research institutes and governments." Back then, the company also imagined that Biosphere 2 would be solar-powered, and that the temperature inside the structure could be controlled by a Venetian blind-like system of louvers that would reflect sunlight out of the greenhouse. Today's Biosphere 2 is powered by natural gas-burning generators that supply electricity to the complex and to surrounding communities. The miniworld is utterly reliant on air conditioning. If the power went out in the middle of a summer afternoon, interior temperatures would rocket to 150 degrees in an hour in some parts of the structure, and plants would start dying, the top project engineer has said. No one has yet bought a biosphere from Space Biospheres Ventures. Today, the company stresses the earthly applications of Biosphere 2, while space applications are mentioned in passing, if at all. Still ultimate goal The Biosphere 2 experiments will continue for 100 years, and in each successive experiment fewer and fewer supplies will be imported, Corliss said. Eventually the crew will be totally self-sufficient, he said. "We'll always be cutting down what we bring in," he said. "We'll be cutting that down as much as we can." Why even bother trying to be 100 percent self-sufficient? Why not just keep track of what goes in and out, as they do now, and operate Biosphere 2 more like a conventional research facility? "You have to do it if you ever want to put one of these on the moon and Mars," Corliss said. "This group has always been motivated by grand visions, and the concept of taking one of these to Mars is a perfect vision to establish for yourself. "If you're talking about going to the stars, at least you're thinking big." [Accompanying this article was the complete list of airlock openings and what went in and out, which I will not reproduce here--it takes up an entire half-page of the newspaper, in tiny print. -jjl] Jim Lippard Lippard@CCIT.ARIZONA.EDU Dept. of Philosophy Lippard@ARIZVMS.BITNET University of Arizona Tucson, AZ 85721


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