Biosphere 2

The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments, the geodesic domes and pyramids known as Biosphere 2.

The idea for Biosphere 2 emerged on a New Mexico ranch in the early 1970s. The residents of Synergia Ranch — who split their time between experimental theater, farming and furniture-making — saw themselves as picking up the pieces from the wreckage of civilization. “Western civilization isn’t simply dying,” the co-founder, John Allen, once said. “It’s dead. We are probing into its ruins to take whatever is useful for the building of the new civilization to replace it.”

They began dreaming of merging ecology and technology into a new form. They gained the support of Ed Bass, the scion of a wealthy Texas family who became chairman of a company called Space Biospheres Ventures. In 1984, the company announced it was going to build an airtight structure inside of which ecosystems would thrive, supplying a group of people with air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat.

The idea of building a world — one free of pollution and other woes of the late-20th-century Earth — proved irresistible. The night before the mission began, Space Biospheres Ventures hosted a dance party for 2,000 people, including Woody Harrelson and Timothy Leary. On the morning of Sept. 26, 1991, eight Biospherians, Ms. Alling and Mr. Van Thillo among them, paraded in front of the press wearing blue jumpsuits that looked like surplus costumes from “Star Trek VI.” After the airlock was shut, they waved to the cameras from behind the glass.

It was a smart media strategy for a company planning on making money on their science. Tourists were coming by the thousands to walk the perimeter of Biosphere 2. The inventions that went into its creations could lead to lucrative patents for water purifiers and data management systems. Mr. Allen and his team envisioned biospheres built to order. By 1995, they hoped to put one in orbit, and perhaps eventually build biospheres on the moon and Mars.

Back on Earth, however, the news coming out of Biosphere 2 was decidedly less cosmic.

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