Weird Science: Biosphere2

My favourite attractions leave me feeling satisfied, having learned something new or made me think about an issue in a different light or provided the pleasure of seeing a beautiful sight. My visit to Biosphere2 failed on most accounts, making me feel that I had been enticed to see one thing and was shown something completely different.

Biosphere2’s claim to fame

In 1991 a Texan billionaire named Ed Bass teamed up with an ex-cult figure called John Allen to create a completely self-sustaining environment, with an indoor 3 acre farm to plant crops and 5 enclosed biospheres each containing a different ecological system: an ocean with coral reefs, a rainforest, mangrove wetlands, a fog desert and savannah grasslands. The technosphere was a 3 mile underground conglomerate of pipes, energy supplies and air regeneration equipment. Biosphere2 also had living quarters for 8 biospherians, a select group of idealistic men and women who agreed to spend 2 years in the Biosphere 2, relying only on the materials inside for their survival. The experiment was named Biosphere2, The Closed Mission. It is located about 45 minutes from Tucson, Arizona:


The ostensible purpose of the experiment was to prove that humans could survive for long periods of time in a closed environment, perhaps on Mars, perhaps in outer space. The biospherians, clad in their Star Trek inspired designer outfits, were paraded before the world media as they entered their airtight cocoon for two years in September, 1991 to begin their experiment.

Problems surfaced quickly. One of the biospherians had to leave the Biosphere following an injury to her hand which the medical doctor inside was unable to remedy. She returned carrying a duffle bag of materials, which the media declared amounted to cheating on the experiment. The crops inside failed to achieve their targets, leading to considerable malnutrition and weight loss of the inhabitants.

Most significantly, the plants inside the biosphere failed to photosynthesize as quickly as needed, leading to an abundance of carbon dioxide inside. The biospherians were slowly being suffocated, leading to lethargy and other ills. To resolve the lack of oxygen, outside management decided to allow external air into the biosphere, compromising the self-sufficiency aspect of the entire experiment.


Nonetheless, two years later, the biospherians emerged from their bubble and declared it a success. Time Magazine was not so enthusiastic, declaring it one of the Worst 100 Ideas of the 20th century. Current analysis of its value is split into two camps. Those who considered it as an experiment to determine if people could live in a self-sufficient environment for an extended period view it as a failure, pointing to the outside assistance needed to sustain the project. The other camp recharacterizes the purpose of the Biosphere2 as an opportunity to determine how people could live in a self-sustaining system, regarding all the problems encountered as lessons learned. They note some of those lessons are currently being applied on the Space Station and in Antarctica research stations.

The Tour:

However, one regards the Biosphere2 experiment, very little of it is mentioned on the current tour. Our docent, Carol, met us and ushered us into a theatre for a short video about the current Biosphere2. After the original biospherians left in 1993, a second group of 8 entered the domes, but emerged just 6 months later amid infighting amongst the management, a raid by law enforcement officials and somehow, Steve Bannon’s (the former Trump advisor) involvement. None of this was mentioned by Carol. Instead, she advised that Columbia University took over Biosphere2 initially but currently, the University of Arizona manages it.

Nor was there reference to the length of time the original biospherians spent in the Biosphere2. Carol did drop a few tidbits about the Closed Mission:

  • Because of the bean failure, coffee was rationed to a single cup every two weeks;
  • Ants and cockroaches thrived, with the cockroaches becoming coworkers by aerating the dead leaves in the rainforest;
  • The biospherians took to eating their grain seeds to off ward off hunger.

But mostly,  the tour focused on the current or anticipated scientific experiments that the University would carry out,  relating to the effects of climate change on the ocean and rainforest, matters I suspect are of less than overwhelming concern in the middle of the Mojave desert.

(The mock ocean and rainforest).

This is a missed opportunity., in my opinion. If the University of Arizona wants to exploit Biosphere2 and turn it into a tourist attraction, it should focus on the Closed Mission, its goals, successes or failures It could have a gift shop selling T-shirts and coffee mugs declaring “I survived the Biosphere2” and have videos of the biospherians entering and exiting. Maybe it could invite back some of the biospherians or do a sequel “where are they now.”  In any event,  I shouldn’t have to survey the internet to find out what happened to the Closed Mission at Biosphere2.

Instead, the current tour just tries to sweep the whole thing under the rug like a bad memory, an experiment poorly conceived and badly implemented. Whatever its merit, the Biosphere2 Closed Mission deserves more than passing mention on a tour of the Biosphere2.

No Bones About It: Pima Boneyard Tour

There are no bones on a Pima boneyard tour. It doesn’t involve a cemetery or a medical school anatomy class or even a skeleton. What it does have are airplanes, lots of them. A boneyard is where old planes go to live out the remainder of their useful lives, either as back-up planes or for spare parts, until they are deemed completely obsolete and are shredded (sold for scrap). One of the largest boneyards in the world, and the only one available for public tours, is located at the Pima Air and Space Museum near Tucson, Arizona.

Being allowed on the tour is no mean feat. Since getting to the boneyard requires going through the active Davis – Monthan Air Force Base, precautions are taken to ensure no undesirables are on board the tour bus. Pre-approval 2 weeks in advance is absolutely necessary. Ever so cautious, I had applied 4 weeks before providing all requested information, but heard nothing in the promised response time of 3 days. I sent another application and still heard nothing. “Maybe I was no longer a good security risk?” I wondered. Was it because I no longer had a job? Maybe I shouldn’t have told the customs officer I didn’t have an address when he asked where I lived.

Beginning to panic, I started to leave voice mail messages at the museum, but was never able to connect. Finally, 4 frantic phone messages later and 2 days before the deadline, I received a confirmation email. I was cleared to take a 5 minute bus ride across the Air Force base as long as I didn’t carry firearms, knives or backpacks and promised to obey all commands regarding photographs.

On the day of the boneyard tour, I arrived with an hour to spare at Pima. Although the boneyard  was my primary objective, the Air and Space Museum has plenty of other historic aircraft. Despite the heat being 43 degrees, I walked outside and looked at some of the planes. An Air Force One which had ferried Presidents Kennedy and Johnson was there, along with a B-36, a Blue Angel and some crazy looking NASA contraption.

The Museum was staffed by lots of volunteers – all pilots or persons with connections to the Air Force. Each was eager to share their flying stories with everybody. As I was looking at an early model Learjet, Mark approached me. He was in his 70s. He had contracted polio as a youth and been left with a bad leg (he was in a wheelchair). He had been rejected by the military, but still learned to fly and had been doing so for nearly 50 years. He asked if I wanted to fly, but I admitted my nervousness of flying. He said flying was the second best thing one can ever do. Suckered in, I asked him what was the best. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes, like he had probably done hundreds of times before, then replied: “landing.”

We boarded the bus for the boneyard tour with our confirmations and a 2nd show of our passports and purses (to make sure there were no guns in them), then drove to the base where we all dismounted and gave our passports (3rd time) over to an air force person. We waited in a hot, dark shed for about 10 minutes before he returned, gave us our passports back and reboarded the bus.

Our docent, Thomas, was a former air force pilot who had originally trained at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Once he left the military, he had continued to fly for a state national guard. As the bus drove, he delivered a treasure trove of information. The boneyard contains 3400 mostly military aircraft, down from a high of 6,000. Upon arrival at the boneyard, each aircraft is inventoried by a specialized parts manager, then readied for its stay. It is first covered with a black sealant, then its windows, engine faces and nose sprayed with a white sealant, giving all the planes a ghostlike appearance.


The white seals have the effect of maintaining the interior temperature 15 degrees cooler than the Tucson desert. The interior instruments can be damaged at about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so the seals give the necessary cushion if it gets over 130 degrees.

One plane, of course, did not need the seals. It was the Stealth, which as everyone knows, is invisible. Here it is:


A little boneyard humour (courtesy of Thomas).

As we drove through the boneyard, seeing plane upon plane, Thomas narrated information about each plane. A common naming system meant the starting letter of each plane indicates its function, so an A plane is an Attack plane, a B (like in B-52) is a Bomber, C (as in C-36) is Cargo. The F-18 is a Fighter and Thomas added that he hoped when the sequel to Top Gun is made, Tom Cruise would play the grandfather.

Words cannot adequately describe the sight of thousands of planes sitting in the Arizona sun, so I shall end with pictures.

Probably hundreds of billions of dollars worth of planes lined up like toy cars in a store window. It was quite a sight.