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Inside the strange—and misunderstood—saga of Biosphere 2

Episode 6 of “Nice Try!” visits the Arizona research facility that began as an experimental space colony and ended as a lesson on hubris and human nature


Escape fantasies have long fueled the search for utopia—that irresistible notion of putting everything wrong in the rear view and casting out to a new world of your own making. In the late 1980s, a motley crew of ecologists, engineers, artists, and an eccentric billionaire embarked on an experiment to see if humans were able to colonize space, presuming that the earth would, at some point, become uninhabitable due to environmental collapse, nuclear war, or some other catastrophic event. And thus, Biosphere 2—one of the strangest research experiments of the 20th century—was willed into existence.

Located in Oracle, Arizona, Biosphere 2 is an enormous, geometric steel-and-glass building that contains replicas of the ecosystems on earth, the original biosphere. It cost $200 million to build, and $1 million a year to operate. In 1991, eight researchers sealed themselves inside to study how the environments—a coastal desert, an ocean complete with coral reef, a tropical rainforest, a grassland, and a mangrove wetland—would evolve and if they could sustain human life.

Biosphere 2 was influenced by Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic architecture, “Synergetics” systems thinking, and “Spaceship Earth” theories. Meanwhile, the writings of historian and urbanist Lewis Mumford informed Biosphere 2’s explorations of the natural world and technology working harmoniously together to support human life.

When the experiment began, it was met with curiosity and fanfare. But after a series of controversies and mishaps—including a near-lethal loss of oxygen and conflict between researchers and their new manager, Steve Bannon—it was dismissed as a failure in mainstream media. “Biosphere or Biostunt?” read the title of a 1993 Time story on the project. It was lampooned in the 1996 Pauly Shore movie Bio-Dome. But did the experiment actually “fail,” or was it just misunderstood and misinterpreted? It depends on who you ask.

Episode 6 of Nice Try! features interviews with Tony Burgess, ecologist and desert designer for Biosphere 2; Pascale Maslin, an environmental scientist and participant in the second Biosphere 2 mission; Mark Nelson, director of the Institute of Ecotechnics and a Biospherian from the first mission; and Rebecca Reider, author of Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities.

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