‘Trouble in the Bubble,’ Esquire, June 1994

Biosphere 2 was created as a self-contained ecological model of how man could live on other planets. But now the bubble has burst and the keepers of the flame have been banished from the 20th century Garden of Eden. By Edward Fox

IN MY UNWRITTEN book on spiritual geography -- a work linking the features of the earth with the spiritual experiences they have begotten throughout history -- there is a long chapter on deserts. After dealing with the desert-born monotheisms (Judaism, Islam), it includes a substantial section, full of violent incident, on the strange blooms of the deserts of the American southwest.

Mormonism, modelling itself on the original Israelites in Sinai, took root in the deserts of Utah. The peyote-induced mystical speculations of Carlos Castaneda began in the deserts of Arizona. The terror of an infinitely starry sky and of a vast, harsh, empty landscape seems to inspire visionaries. In America this idea of the desert is woven into the myth of the frontier, whose hero, the pioneer, righteously flees civilization in search of unlimited, absolute freedom.

The chapter concludes with the case of Biosphere 2, located near the aptly named town of Oracle, Arizona, in the southern part of the state about 30 miles north-east of Tucson. Biosphere 2, as everyone knows, is a vastly expensive attempt at creating a self-contained, self-sufficient ecological environment, with the ultimate goal of designing a prototype for human colonies on other planets. Imagine Jurassic Park, but replace the dinosaurs with a huge, hermetically sealed Garden of Eden that looks like an Aztec temple made of glass, with a stepped pyramid at each end, as ancient looking as it is futuristic. And it's in cactus and cowboy country instead of on a tropical island. The BIO2 logo stamped on everything gives a sense of overbearingly confident corporate purpose. Uniformed security guards in mirror shades cruise the smooth paths in golf carts. Tourists can stay at the Inn on the Biosphere and eat a Bioburger at the Biosphere Cafe.

It's called Biosphere 2 because Biosphere 1 is the earth. They have built a miniature earth to experiment on, complete with ocean, desert, rain forest and savannah, and a panoply of technology that allows them to control and monitor everything that happens in it. Only it's a better version of the earth: cleaner, safer, more beautiful, more productive. For two years, from September 1991 to September 1993, eight "biospherians" lived in this giant test-tube, sealed off (to the extent that this is possible) from the fallen world of smog and strip mining, growing their own food, recycling all waste, as if they were on a base on Mars. The people involved, the chapter in my unwritten book argues, clearly belong to a long line of desert visionaries, slightly fanatical utopians, who alone possess the true doctrine for saving the world.

This is the only way I can make sense of the events that recently unfolded there.

ON APRIL 1, two federal marshals and two court-appointed receivers drove onto the Biosphere 2 site, at mile 96.5, Oracle Road (Highway 77) and served a restraining order on six senior managers of Space Biospheres Ventures Inc (SBV), the company formed to operate on Biosphere 2. The marshals ordered them to leave their offices, withdrew their computer passwords, and changed the locks on their doors. The action was initiated by Edward P Bass, the Texan oil billionaire the who finances Biosphere 2, on the grounds that the six were financially mismanaging the project, and resisting his attempts to reform the way they ran it.

It was the culmination of a long power struggle between Bass and the mystically oriented yet secretive clique who inspired him to bankroll the project, and who comprised the senior management of SBV. They felt it was their project, yet now Bass was dumping them after a decade. The inspirational pole star of the group was writer John Polk Allen, whose house on a hill overlooking the Biosphere has a wigwam beside it which is used for occasional Indian-style "sweats". He is a former union organizer, metallurgist, playwright, and in the early 1970s was the leader of a commune and theatre group in New Mexico called the Synergia Ranch. The Biosphere vision grew out of the experience of the Synergia Ranch and the other jazzily named organization Allen founded, the Institute of Ecotechnics.

Three days after the marshals arrived, two of the original biospherians, who were also SBV managers, Abigail Alling, a 34-year-old marine biologist who looked after the miniature ocean inside the Biosphere, and Mark van Thillo, a 33-year-old Belgian engineer who went by the Star Trek-ish nickname ‘Laser,’ retaliated emotionally against Bass’s coup. In the dead of night, and acting on Alling’s instructions, van Thillo opened the airlock that seals the building’s carefully regulated artificial atmosphere from the atmosphere of the surrounding desert, as well as five emergency doors, and broke windows on one of the two dome-shaped buildings that house the devices that control the Biosphere’s air supply. The result was that the precise measurement of gases inside the building was thrown out of kilter and the struggle to achieve a truly self-contained ecological balance was significantly set back.

Alling telephoned the site at 4am and announced what they had done. Later that morning, the hermetic purity of the Biosphere was breached in dramatic fashion: a twelve-man search posse -- consisting of "SBV internal security, hired security officers, representatives of the official receiver, and SBV technicians and management," accord- ing to an SBV press release -- entered the glasshouse for three hours to search for the saboteurs.

But Ailing and van Thillo were not there. With no previous experience of fleeing from the police, they had meekly repaired to a nearby motel to await arrest and as they waited, they explained themselves by telephone to reporters all across the country. Alling said their aim in opening the windows was to "end the experiment" out of concern for the "safety" of the crew currently inside the Biosphere, because the "bankers and a police force" who had taken over weren't competent to operate the project. The saboteurs were arrested two days later charged with criminal damage, trespass and burglary, and released on bail. One of the conditions of their release was that neither return to the Biosphere 2 site, or have any contact with anyone working there.

As part of the damage control operation that followed, harm to experiment was downplayed. ("BIOSPHERE 2 SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY REMAINS INTACT," SBV announced. "Attempt at Sabotage Has ' Minimal Effect' .") Another part was that one of the seven biospherians inside the structure, Norberto Alvarez-Romo, came out indefinitely to help the new management and the receivers discuss "a possible mission restructuring".

On April 12, the Biosphere 2 press office felt compelled to issue a press release pronouncing the crew inside the dome in good health, after examination by a medical doctor and a psychologist. The psychologist said, "They are reacting to the events of the past week in manner expected of anyone who has gone through extraordinarily unfortunate circumstances. "

OPENING THE DOORS on the Biosphere was precisely what Edward Bass had feared. The original restraining order had said, "If the energy supplied to Biosphere 2 is cut, its doors are opened, or its computer systems are aborted, or other possible actions [...] are taken, much, if not all, of the scientific value of Biosphere 2 will be lost or impaired..." The question of why Bass should have feared what indeed did happen takes us back to the chapter in the imaginary spiritual geography about desert visionaries. The motivation for Biosphere 2 was faith, with science as its handmaiden and, as any schoolboy knows, matters of faith are not subject to rational argument. And as Edward P Bass put it in his motion for a temporary restraining order, the managers of Biosphere 2 "have demonstrated the capability to react irrationally". It was a faith in the power of travel to other planets to save mankind, a faith born in the age of the Apollo programme. It was an absolute faith, not subject to contradiction.

It was a vision very close to the one described by William S Burroughs at the beginning of his novel The Place ofDead Roads, which is set in the neighbouring states of Colorado and New Mexico: "The only thing that could unite the planet is a united space program... the earth becomes a space station and war is simply out, irrelevant, flatly insane in a context of research centers, spaceports, and the exhilaration of working with people you like and respect toward an agreed-upon objective, an objective from which all workers will gain. Happiness is a by-product of function. The planetary space station will give all participants an opportunity to function."

He wrote in the same book, "The Garden of Eden was a space station, from which we were banished to the surface of the planet to live by the sweat of mortal brows in a constant losing fight with gravity." Space stations; a paradise in the desert. The ideas are all in William Burroughs.

Burroughs is a close friend of this SBV elect. The Biosphere includes a prosimian -- a monkey-like creature called a galago -- because Burroughs, who is fond of lemurs (also prosimians) suggested it. One of the galago babies is called William Kim -- William after William S Burroughs, Kim after the main character in The Place of Dead Roads.

According to Mark Nelson, one of the six managers sacked in Bass's April 1 coup and an original biospherian, the connection with Burroughs goes back to the Institute of Ecotechnics, a small London-based "think-tank and research group" chaired by Nelson that held annual meetings bringing together artists, scientists, explorers and others. "He came to our 'Planet Earth' conference and gave a memorable talk that turned a few of our scientists apoplectic..."

Nelson has never lost his faith in the questing spirit of Apollo-era Nasa. He is someone who likes to make people's eyes roll in wonder with his visions of the future. "It's important to have visions beyond," he told me, speaking in his office on the Biosphere 2 site the day before the marshals came. "Space is going to be exciting when it becomes a frontier that you and I and everybody can think realistically about going to. Nasa has gone hi-tech and high-money and is hooked into the aerospace companies. They run technologies that are so expensive that only an elite of astronauts are ever going to get up there, and that's going to change: there are revolutions going on in how to get off this planet, like the Delta Clipper project, right now in a two-thirds prototype. It takes off and lands vertically. There are three guys in a trailer who are the complete flight control -- not thousands upon thousands like Nasa uses to launch a rocket. And they don't throw away anything!"

SO WHAT WENT WRONG? What went wrong was that although the vision was strong, the science was only OK, and the management, in the words of an auditor appointed by Ed Bass, was "unacceptably weak", its economic track record "abysmal". It was weak because if you have faith of a certain kind, nothing you do is wrong, and there is no room for alternative views. This was the kind of faith SBV's tightly-knit clique of managers had. It meant a reactive style of management that lurched from crisis to crisis, in the view of Bass's auditors, with no business plan, constant huddled meetings, and a demoralizing influence on employees. It also meant they would pay $45,000 a year to have trash bins emptied, to a company owned by an SBV manager. Because SBV is a nominally for-profit company, Biosphere 2's brief includes the development and marketing of environmental technologies (in the same way the space programme gave the world spin-off technologies like the non-stick surface of frying pans). Its flagship product is an air- purifier called Airtron.

"Airtron is beginning to be marketed now," Nelson said. "Two hundred units have been sold and we're now gearing up for higher production." Actually, only one single Airtron has been sold up to now, although there are orders for about 100. The Biosphere 2 coffee mug, sold at most of the site's six gift shops (the hard sell you get at Buyosphere 2 combines indigestibly with its self-proclaimed philanthropic aims), is probably SBV's most successful product (and completely safe for use on Mars). The operation is running at a loss and its main source of income is tourism. At this it is a great success: it is Arizona's third-largest tourist attraction, and attracts hundreds of visitors a day paying $12.95 each for admission.

Besides paying $150 million to build Biosphere 2, Edward Bass has paid for a budget shortfall in 1993 of $1.3 million, a 100 per cent overspend. Moreover, Bass's affidavits allege, there has been "shrinkage" worth a total of $42,000 from the gift shops, a $20,000 certificate of deposit has gone missing, no budget was submitted for 1993, and senior managers were using Biosphere 2 business charge cards for personal use, using Biosphere 2 employees to do work in their private homes, and helping themselves to Biosphere 2 merchandise. When Bass sent in auditors to scrutinize the books and the way the business was run, the SBV managers called the audit "critical and adversarial" and rejected it. When Bass tried to restructure the organisation, the chief executive officer of SBV, Margret Augustine, refused to allow a new CEO appointed by Bass onto the premises. When Bass invited a panel of scientists in 1992 to review the project's scientific programme, four of its ten members resigned the panel, citing "personality clashes" with SBV management.

Bass has prevailed in this dispute because it is, after all, his greenhouse. His most notable triumph in the struggle for control of Biosphere 2 has been the appointment of Dr Jack Corliss as director of scientific research, who was hired in March 1993 after the panel of scientists recommended establishing the post, to boost and direct research. Under Corliss, science has taken a new direction at Biosphere 2. Visiting scientists are now encouraged to use the facility and are beginning to respond.

And perhaps this heralds a new era of glasnost. Unlike state-run or state-funded scientific organizations in the United States, which are notably open, their people informative and accessible, Biosphere 2 has had an information policy that makes the North Korean nuclear weapons programme look like an oasis of liberal and enlightened openness.

Anything about Biosphere 2 that didn't smack of a rather saccharin New Age Granola was kept out of sight, on grounds that it was "proprietary" information.

The visiting reporter saw little that wasn't on a prepared script. Meetings were closed tight. When I asked to sit in on a "video-conference" between scientists on the outside and biospherians inside the structure, the answer was a firmly closed door. Visitors, whether journalists or scientists, consistently reported the feeling that Biosphere 2 seemed to have something to hide.

It's now clear that they did.

New Scientist

Science maverick Jack Corliss first made the headlines when he discovered strange sea creatures that could hold the key to how we evolved. Now he’s bringing the same pioneering spirit to Biosphere 2

THE APPOINTMENT OF Jack Corliss in 1993 to be director of scientific research at Biosphere 2 represented a significant change of direction at the project: a movement away from trying to change the world through eco-alchemy (science with as much spiritual meaning as physical significance), and towards what might be construed as real ecological science. For this purpose, Corliss is the ideal person: his extraordinary career exemplifies the unconventional, intuitive, non-institutional approach that Biosphere 2 has always aspired to, as it tried to establish itself as a legitimate research project, independent of the monolith of government-sponsored science.

Corliss did a lot of television interviews in the immediate aftermath of the break-in, issuing a stream of reassuring soundbites. He looks like a composite of a bear, a druid and God (as popularly conceived), with his venerable wreath of white hair and beard that encircle an alert and amiable countenance. "It's too early to say how things will change here," he said soon after the coup, the sabotage, and the arrests, "except that I will have more latitude in the future, and greater input." As one scientist put it, "It is arguable that Corliss is the first real scientist to be associated with Biosphere 2."

Corliss first made headlines in 1977, when he led a scientific research cruise to explore the seafloor near the Galapagos Islands. He was an associate professor in oceanography at Oregon State University at the time. It had been predicted by Corliss and others that as a consequence of plate tectonics, sea water might seep into the cracks in the earth's crust, meet hot lava, react with it chemically, and explode outwards again. The results of the Galapagos cruise proved this prediction true in spectacular fashion when underwater springs were found that gushed hot sulphurous waters. What no one could have predicted was that around these vents lived unique creatures that thrived in darkness on the noxious chemicals that spewed out of them: hideous creatures like giant blood-red clams and long blood-red worms.

The underwater hot springs and the animals that lived off them suggested how life might have originated on the primitive earth, billions of years ago. Corliss came to hypothesize that as the planet cooled, hot springs were more numerous than they are now, and that their chemical-rich emissions cooked up organic molecules of increasing complexity that eventually took on the characteristics of cells, and survived through evolutionary competition.

Simply organizing the cruise was a triumph, according to Dr John Edmond, a geochemist now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , who took part in the expedition. "I would regard that cruise as being entirely Corliss's inspiration," he says. "There was a lot of indirect and theoretical evidence for hydrothermal springs, but no one had ever seen one. He recruited a lot of scientific kingpins to come out on this hunt with him, people who had much better things to do. We had no idea what we were looking for, we were basically flying blind. We found the vents after just two or three days on site."

But the most spectacular discovery was the foul-smelling vent animals, reeking of hydrogen sulphide, the active ingredient in rotten eggs: they lived in an ecology that was independent of sunlight, on chemicals that were poisonous to other forms of life. The discovery caused a feeding frenzy among biologists, whose eyes lit up with visions of the Nobel Prizes to be had for claiming and naming new species -- new phyla, for heaven's sake, new divisions of the animal kingdom -- from the stinky cornucopia of the underwater hot springs.

It was at this point that Corliss made his first philosophical break with the way science typically works. "Suddenly there's a gold mine down there," he says. "If we'd found bars of gold on the seafloor, there would have been the same reaction. Because it was gold: anybody who got to take the next expedition down there to study these things -- the biology -- was going to get a lot of money to do it. "

Rather than compete for the honour, Corliss tried to organize a conference to agree on a unified approach to the study of the hot springs, which were, after all, complete and unique ecosystems, entirely separate from all other ecological systems on earth, and as such highly suitable for study as a whole, rather than in pieces. But scientific careers are made by finding a piece of the pie of knowledge, laying possession to it, and holding onto it tight. Corliss deplored this approach.

The Galapagos cruise was a high point, yet it was also the beginning of his undoing as an academic. Jack Dymond, an Oregon State oceanographer who was on the Galapagos cruise, said Corliss's weakness was his failure to observe the cardinal academic rule of "publish or perish". Eventually, if you accept his account, Corliss gradually fired himself from Oregon State and spent the next four years in Hungary, unemployed, nominally attached to Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. In 1987, he returned to the United States when he won the grant to work at Nasa that he held until the call came from Biosphere 2.

Now he has the chance to do the kind of science he really wants to do. Ideally, the Biosphere allows the study of a single controlled ecosystem as a whole, not as a fragment on a microscope slide. Natural processes are all speeded up inside the great greenhouse: oxygen and carbon dioxide circulate faster, plants grow faster and bigger. Yet all variables are controllable. You can determine how much rain will fall or how much wind will blow, and see how these changes affect the System as a whole. It lets scientists experiment on a perfect miniature of the earth. And because there are humans inside (Corliss will spend a month in the dome himself later this year), human responses to "natural" phenomena can be exactly measured. "It's ironic, but my next big discovery may be in medical science," Corliss says.

What about bases on Mars? "I really wouldn't mind ifl never got involved with going to Mars," Corliss admitted to me one night, over barbecue ribs at the nearby Oracle Inn.

Earth presents enough problems as it is.