PARK CITY, Utah — In 1991, eight people stepped into a massive, airtight structure near Oracle, Arizona, with the ambitious plan of staying put for two years. Called Biosphere 2, these “biospherians” or “bionauts” were to study the effects of living in a man-made environment, with its own atmosphere and natural habitats, in hopes of one day using the technology on a distant planet.
Their oddball adventure was ripped out of a Jules Verne novel, or “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.”
The much-ballyhooed event was covered enthusiastically by the press. Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw and Dianne Sawyer all gave airtime to the Biosphere 2 project, and filmed the participants — clad in blue, “Trek”-esque uniforms — as they entered their new home, like children walking into Willy Wonka’s mysterious chocolate factory.
Many in the media went gaga, with one news anchor proclaiming, “We may look back on this in a number of years and say ‘that was where it all began.’” Others were skeptical, calling it a “tourist attraction run by questionable characters.”
Whatever the answer, the large-scale experiment getting national buzz was a coup for the group, who started out in 1969 as a cult-y commune of New Wave eccentrics with an amateur theater company.
Biosphere 2, which few people seem to remember when asked, is the subject of a wonderfully bizarre new documentary called “Spaceship: Earth” that premiered Saturday at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Written and directed by Matt Wolf, it tracks the wild journey of a few like-minded friends in San Francisco, led by the charismatic John Allen. Together they formed the outre Theater of All Possibilities, stayed connected and gradually tackled bigger and bigger initiatives. The film, boosted by a trove of archival footage, has the twists and turns of a funnel cake.
(If you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading.)
Yes, the crew spent hours playing kooky theater games, gyrating and shouting at the Synergia Ranch in Arizona; they also built a ship that they used to sail around the world, bought an art gallery in London, erected a hotel in Katmandu and eventually created the $200 million Biosphere 2.
“I thought part of John Allen’s genius was to help them realize it’s all theater,” Tony Burgess, a desert ecologist who worked on the terrarium, says in the doc.
Unlike most communes, Allen and Co. had a billionaire on board to bankroll their sci-fi fantasies. Ed Boss was the rebel member of a Texas oil family, and saw possibilities for profit in the mad scientists’ ideas. In the case of Biosphere 2, he hoped to build and sell the giant terrariums when mankind eventually colonized space.
Biosphere 2 attempted to recreate earth on a miniature scale, with a little ocean, desert, prairie, rainforest and more. The friends traveled around the globe taking plant clippings and collecting wildlife, a la Noah’s Ark, to turn their acid trip into reality.
And they did, with the help of reputable organizations such as the Smithsonian and the New York Botanic Garden. The eight carefully selected biospherians — an ecologist, marine biologist, nutritionist, etc. — entered their new steel-and-glass home in 1991, and began making their own food, creating wine from bananas and protecting their small world from destruction.
Protecting themselves was more difficult, however. Three months into the endeavor, there was spike in carbon dioxide, making it hard for the inhabitants to breathe, triggering angry fights and malaise. Quietly, a device was turned on that eliminated some CO2 from their environment, improving moods but tainting results. The downturn is the doc’s most compelling section, like “The Real Housewives of the Biosphere.”
The resident doctor, Roy Walford, also held the non-traditional belief that a low-calorie diet was the key to longevity, even saying he’d live to be 120. (He didn’t). And some of the biospherians’ weights dropped dangerously as a result of his theory.
Another scandal occurred when a bionaut hurt her hand in a wheat-thrasher. She left the Biosphere and was taken to a hospital, only to sneak back computer parts and other supplies. The press got wind of the cheating, and blasted the group for misleading the public.
Even so, the octet stayed in their Garden of Eden for 24 months, re-entering the world in 1993 to applause and a triumphant speech from Dr. Jane Goodall. There were plans for more controlled expeditions, but corporate in-fighting and shakeups ended the optimistic explorations. Steve Bannon even became CEO — yes, that Steve Bannon — and much of the data they collected was destroyed.
The biosphere, itself, still stands and is maintained by the University of Arizona.
Today, Allen, some of his co-founders and biospherians live together on their Synergia Ranch in Arizona, proud of what they achieved as it pertains to environmental awareness. For these friends, living in Biosphere 2, drama and all, was the happiest time of their lives.
“My heart is there,” says Linda Leigh, a botanist. “It will probably always be there.”