IV. Two World Collide
Spooked by the disasters befalling the biospherians, their funder, Ed Bass, called in a man whom he believed would manage the project with a steadier hand: Steve Bannon, then an investment banker and now chief White House strategist and adviser to the President. Bannon immediately began generating proposals to monetize the biosphere, including plans to open "Biosphere 3," a casino operated jointly with the Luxor in Las Vegas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Biosphere 2 remained in the red.
Under Bannon's direction, the second and final mission began. But tensions between the old management (Allen, Augustine, and the original crew of biospherians) on one hand, and the money -- Bass and Bannon -- on the other, soon reached a boiling point. On April 1, 1994, Bass and Bannon sent US Marshals to Biosphere 2 with a restraining order, removing the original management from the project. The seven biospherians of mission two, on hearing the news, thought it was an April Fools' joke. They were given the option to leave the project, but decided not to open the airlock.
Two of the original crew -- Alling and Van Thillo -- snuck back onto the property under cover of night and, according to Reider, "smashed small glass safety panels to neutralize the Biosphere's air pressure, then threw open the airlock doors. They quickly left, then telephoned the biospherians, telling the crew that they now had the freedom to leave...however, the biospherians poked their heads out, closed the doors, and chose to go on with their mission...to Gaie [Alling] and Laser [Van Thillo], seeing bankers take over Biosphere 2 was like watching their world come under foreign occupation by an enemy." Alling and Van Thillo were arrested three days later, but were never charged.
Allen, the poet, playwright, and dreamer who conceived of the biosphere, was included in Bass's restraining order and exiled from his promised land. He had mismanaged the project, but there is little to suggest that Bannon did any better. Allen had brought Biosphere 2 into existence out of sheer will and $150 million of his former friend Ed Bass's money; the two-year mission he oversaw reached its conclusion, albeit without meeting the parameters Allen had originally set for it. Under new management, Biosphere 2 was not able to complete even the single year mission it attempted.
Where the old mission control had micromanaged the first crew of biospherians, the new residents of the biosphere found that Bannon and company could not be bothered to manage them at all. When Reider interviewed him, Bannon asked, "What was being gained by locking these people up for a year?" Six months into the second mission, the atmospheric concentration of \(N_2O\) -- laughing gas -- in the biosphere exceeded safe limits, and the experiment was declared over.
As Biospheres 1 and 2 collided, the crew found themselves without a mission. But management was concerned with consolidation, not vision. Reider writes that Bannon and company "purged the staff of suspected loyalists" (an act with eerie echoes today), eventually asking a staff scientist "descended from the Cherokee medicine tradition, to ceremonially cleanse the place." Eventually they were able to persuade Columbia University to manage the facility (on which $200 million had already been spent), and Bannon washed his hands of it.
A record of Bannon's tenure at the biosphere, immortalized via litigation, can be found in this Motherboard article. Unsurprising highlights include accusations of sexual harassment and threats of physical violence.
V. Expelled from the Garden
When I toured Biosphere 2 last week, I was struck by the extent to which the original purpose of the facility has been erased. I was able to find two short videos, playing on a loop, which discussed the original mission; one in which Jane Poynter discusses the biospherians' "high-nutrition, low-calorie diet," and the other a video of the original crew members exiting the airlock after their two-year mission. Of the two pamphlets I picked up at Biosphere 2, one devotes a single line to the 2.5 storied years the facility spent as a sealed ecosystem. The other (which contains more information, as it is aimed at hearing-impaired visitors) does spend a paragraph on the original mission, referring to its end (due to nitrous oxide poisoning) as an "administrative decision ... made to change the direction of the program."
The tour guide made almost no reference to the original mission, except for an oblique reference to the surfeit of trees in the savanna, which, he quickly commented, "were there to control the carbon dioxide levels." Indeed, he spent more time discussing the biosphere's high school summer science program than he did the facility's original purpose. When I asked about the history of the institution, he more or less refused to comment. Nonetheless, I highly recommend a visit if you are in the Tucson area.
Most of the information I gathered for this post came from Rebecca Reider's Dreaming the Biosphere, which starts slow but is overall excellent.
Many of the original group of biospherians have continued to have interesting lives. For example, Poynter has given a TED Talk in which she summarizes her time in the biosphere and discusses her new company, Paragon Space Development, which hopes to use her expertise in building closed ecosystems on the moon and mars. While the mission of the biosphere under the management of the University of Arizona seems unclear, they seem to be pivoting in a similar direction; for example, the lunar garden below is being exhibited in what used to be the biosphere's human habitat.