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...

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