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Unorthodox Science Fuels Biosphere Space Trial

TUCSON. ARIZ.—Find a wealthy benefactor. Assemble a small group of hard-working people committed to a common goal, and let them teach themselves what they need to know. Enlist a few respected scientists who are kindred spirits. Discourage contact with the outside world. And shoot for the stars. That approach is not the usual way science is done in this country. But then Biosphere II is not run-of-the-mill science. Rather, it's an attempt to create a 2.5-acre, enclosed ecological system th

By | May 18, 1987

TUCSON. ARIZ.—Find a wealthy benefactor. Assemble a small group of hard-working people committed to a common goal, and let them teach themselves what they need to know. Enlist a few respected scientists who are kindred spirits. Discourage contact with the outside world. And shoot for the stars.

That approach is not the usual way science is done in this country. But then Biosphere II is not run-of-the-mill science. Rather, it's an attempt to create a 2.5-acre, enclosed ecological system that can be a prototype for living communities in space.

It's no surprise that the $30 million project generates strong feelings among scientists in the field. "Some people say the entire group is off-the-wall," acknowledged microbiologist Clair Folsome, director of the Laboratory for Exobiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an unpaid consultant to the group. "The work is considered too kooky to attract any government funding. But I have no doubt that they will succeed."

"I'm amazed they'd take such a large step when we're going at it one meter at a time," said B.C. Wolverton, senior research scientist with NASA's National Space Technology Laboratories near Bay St. Louis, Miss. Wolverton, who has conducted research related to closed systems for 16 years, anticipates the project will encounter "quite a few problems" in its quest to seal eight volunteers into a structure of at least five ecological systems for a two-year trial scheduled to begin in December 1989.

The venture, called Biosphere II, (Earth is Biosphere I) has the financial backing of a collection of companies supported by Edward Bass, one of four Fort Worth, Texas, brothers who inherited the operations of their tycoon father, oil billionaire Perry Bass.

From Desert to Space

Its unorthodox pursuit of its vision of creating self-supporting living environments has attracted extensive media attention. The report of the National Commission on Space, which looked into the future of the nation's space program, called biospheres essential to the exploration and settlement of the inner solar system.

Bass is the major stockholder of Space Biospheres Ventures (SBV), the company in charge of Biosphere II. Company spokeswoman Kathleen Dyhr said the firm expects to spend $30 million by 1991 on the project, which is being con-ducted in the desert 30 miles north of here.

Most of the project's key administrators lack a scientific background. Bass and several others, including company chairman John Allen, have pursued various ecological and theatrical projects around the world since meeting in the 1970s in Santa Fe, N.M. Allen has an undergraduate degree in metallurgical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University.

Despite its unusual style, Space Ventures has established ties with several well-known scientific organizations. The principal contractor is the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Laboratory, which developed the Land Pavilion for EPCOT Center at Disney World. The company has also developed contractual relationships with the Smithsonian Institution's Marine Systems Laboratory and the New York Botanical Garden's Institute of Economic Botany.

Mark Nelson, an agronomist, oversees the project's review committee, which meets twice a year to offer advice to the participants. The committee includes a handful of scientists, like Folsome and geophysicist Keith Runcorn of the University of Newcastle-on-Tyne, whose work has attracted the attention of Space Ventures officials.

Sympathetic Ears

"We're only advisory. We have no power," said Runcorn, who has extended his earlier work on gravitational magnetism to encompass planetary exploration. "Our value is to listen, and to require the others to set their ideas down on paper so that they can be properly discussed."

Both Runcorn and Folsome praised the managerial ability of Nelson, whose Institute for Ecotechnics is an affiliated organization. "He has a way of finding people who will agree with [the project]. If they don't, they don't stay around for long," said Folsome, who said he has spent $60,000 of his own funds on research that has applications for the Biosphere project.

For NASA scientists, the most troubling aspect of the Biosphere project is its scope. Wolverton describes his own work, primarily in waste-water and indoor-air treatment, as "systematic." Although he said he generally favors comprehensive approaches over lengthy studies, "the scope of [Biosphere II] frightens me."

Wolverton admitted this view has put him at odds with James Bredt, chief of biological systems research at NASA headquarters. "We have a disagreement within NASA on how to get a closed system going," he said.

Without wishing to appear critical, the NASA scientists questioned the feasibility of various aspects of Biosphere II. The exposure of the structure's glass roofs to the sun, for example, will create conditions difficult to control, said Paul Buchanan, director of biomedical operations and research for NASA at Kennedy Space Center. Bredt added that it would be difficult to seal off Biosphere's glass windows to prevent any exchange of gases with the outside atmosphere. Wolverton questioned the proximity of desert and rain forest environments without some kind of complicated air-exchange system.

In response to Buchanan's comments, Dyhr said a "lung" on the outside of the structure, actually a variable-volume chamber connected underground, will regulate air flow within Biosphere II as expansions and contractions occur.

A Scale Too Large

Because Space Biospheres Ventures has a strong ecological bent, the company is insisting on natural processes, whenever possible, for air and water purification, waste management, pest control and energy. But its size makes it impractical for use in space.

"They're building a five million cubic foot building," Bredt said. "You couldn't fly with that."

Russell Schweickart, a former astronaut who is a paid liaison for the project with NASA, said, "Biosphere II is launching knowledge and understanding … We don't envision picking it up and launching it anywhere."

Biosphere II's principal scientists are optimistic about the project's success, however. "There's no question it's going to work," said Carl Hodges, director of the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Lab. The $1 million annual contract represents about one-third of the lab's total budget, he said.

Ghillean Prance, a botanist with the New York Botanical Gardens in charge of Biosphere II's rain forest biome (a unit of the overall biosphere), was critical of the lack of professionalism displayed during an earlier encounter with the project's organizers. But he said the group has since learned "to allow more leeway and accept more of the scientific opinion."

Folsome said the frequent meetings are very different from the usual scientific gatherings. "They're not interested in reading papers. They're interested in making it work."

Prance gives company personnel high marks as managers and problem solvers, and believes its philosophical bent is an advantage. "If you had put together a group of scientists without their philosophical side of it, I don't think it would have worked."

Thomas 0. Paine, former NASA administrator and head of the Space Commission, agrees with Prance. "I think in a sense it takes somebody who's pretty uninhibited to get involved in a crazy thing like a biosphere," he said. "We singled them out [in our report] because there's so little work going on.

"I get the impression they've got a fighting chance and it needs doing," Paine continued. "The more conservative groups just aren't doing it."

Weisberg is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, N.M.

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