'Bon voyage' 8 biospherians begin journey in greenhouse
Jim Erickson; The Arizona Daily Star
ORACLE - Ed Bass slammed the massive front door of Biosphere 2 shut yesterday morning, but it popped back open a fraction of a second later, as if one of the eight crew members had second thoughts about spending two years sealed in a greenhouse.
But with a little help from Margret Augustine, chief executive officer of Space Biospheres Ventures, the Texas multibillionaire finally secured the airlock at 8:18, signaling the long-delayed start of the $150 million ecological experiment.
Biosphere 2, the latter-day Noah's ark that's been praised by some as visionary and panned by others as pseudoscientific glitz, set sail yesterday in a ceremony attended by more than 500 people and featured on national television.
After being blessed by a chanting Crow Indian in headdress, a robed Buddhist monk from Tibet and a Mexican dancer burning incense, the eight bio-spherians filed up the steps of a stage designed by Evening Star Productions.
With the sun rising behind the eight-story glass-and-steel structure, the great-grandson of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prizes, extolled the project and the eight "courageous humans" who will join 3,800 species of plant and animal life "on a two-year odyssey to find answers and solutions to the survival of the planet."
Someone from the governor's office stepped up to proclaim the day Arizona Biosphere 2 Closure Celebration Day.
Bass, the project's main financial backer, compared Biosphere 2 to Galileo's telescope, Leonardo da Vinci's imagined flying machines, and the Wright brothers' airplane.
"Today we gather here to inaugurate a new instrument to probe not the heavens, but the mysteries of our very own home planet," Bass said.
"Like Galileo, we don't know what we'll find; and like the Wrights, we hope to soar.
"So, biospherians, my good friends, bon voyage and fly your spaceship well, that all humanity may fly its Spaceship Earth better in the future," he said.
Wearing blue jumpsuits with green piping, the four men and four women of the Biosphere 2 crew stepped to the podium, one at a time, to deliver brief and sometimes teary farewells. Then it was down the green astroturf runway, a wave to the crowd, and into their new 3.15-acre home, the largest airtight self-sustaining life-support system ever built.
A few seconds later, they appeared at an inside window to wave to the crowd one last time - as had been rehearsed earlier in the morning - and then the "closure" was over.
Shut inside are: Mark Van Thillo, 30, of Belgium; Sally Silverstone, 36, of England; Mark Nelson, 44, of New York; Linda Leigh, 39, of Racine, Wis.; Taber McCallum, 27, of Albuquerque; Roy Walford, 67, of Los Angeles; Abigail Alling, 31, of New York; and Jane Poynter, 29, of England.
For the next two years, or at least until something goes seriously wrong, they will tend the self-sustaining miniworld, with its tropical rain forest, savannah, marsh, marine and desert habitats.
They will breathe recycled air, drink recycled water and grow all their food. After a hard day harvesting corn, milking goats and picking agaves, they will relax in plush private apartments equipped with stereos, computers and personal libraries.
They hope to learn more about the Earth's ecological systems while making money for Space Biospheres Ventures through technology development and tourism. Some 100,000 people have already visited the sprawling complex 35 miles north of Tucson and near Oracle. Tours, by reservation only, resume today.
The company expects to show a profit within two years, Bass said Wednesday night during a brief interview at a catered pre-closure party attended by several hundred Biosphere 2 backers, curious locals, and media representatives. The finale was a laser-light show and fireworks.
"Certainly I expect to see a return on my investment, but I also want to open people's eyes about our own biosphere, planet Earth," the maverick son of the Texas oil family said as guys in white hats carved slices of ham and turkey onto paper plates.
Bass, standing in the center of a big-top tent, was surrounded by firefighters from San Manuel, the Tibetan monk, planetary scientists from the University of Arizona, members of the stage crew, former Arizona governor and presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt, former countercultural icon Timothy Leary, and long-time friend John Allen.
Among the other celebrities in attendance were comedian Steve Guttenberg, and several members from the television show "Cheers."
Allen is director of research and development for Space Biospheres Ventures and lightning rod for much of the criticism that has recently been heaped on the desert megaproject.
Carol Line, a former associate of Bass', has repeatedly alleged that Allen exerts unusual control over his associates, and that Allen physically abused Bass years ago at a New Mexico ranch. Those accusations have been repeatedly denied.
The other main source of criticism comes from the "it's not real science" faction. Some scientists say Biosphere 2 tries to do too much. With 3,800 species in seven interconnected habitats, it will be impossible to determine the relationships between any of the components, some critics charge.
"To know what's going on in there, to understand dynamics, forget it," said Bassett Macguire, a professor of zoology at the University of Texas in Austin.
"It just seems to me this is a situation where they're multiplying the complexity much more than is useful and necessary, and that makes understanding what's going on in there that much more difficult," said Macguire, an expert on the ecology of closed systems.
"Maybe what we're doing here isn't science but the engineering and tinkering that will lead to a science, which is biospherics," said botanist Tony Burgess, designer of Biosphere 2's desert habitat.
"We're not quite to the science level yet - it's premature for that - but it's a new way of looking at things to lay the foundation for a science to come," said Burgess, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Tucson.