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2 years in complete isolation: how the US tried to “master” other planets and why nothing came of it

In the works of science fiction writers, one can often find a story about a group of people living in a space separate from the rest of the world who themselves produce everything necessary for a full life. A similar experiment, the purpose of which was to understand whether people could create “biospheres” on other planets and live in them, was carried out in real conditions: in 1991, a team of several people was placed under an isolated dome. Writes about this

Photo: Shutterstock

In 1987, large-scale construction began in the middle of the Sonora Desert in the US state of Arizona. 4 years later, when the construction was completed, on an area of ​​more than 3 hectares, cases made of glass and metal grew, similar to those that we see in films about the future. They were built so that the air did not penetrate either from the inside or from the outside - this made it possible to most accurately simulate alien conditions with an atmosphere unsuitable for humans.

Both the buildings and the project for which they were intended were called “Biosphere 2”. These futuristic buildings were to become the second after the Earth (namely, our planet was considered "Biosphere-1") a fully self-regulating system. The tightness of the structure was so impressive that its seams let in less air than the International Space Station.

Underground were engineering structures. Pipes were laid where water circulated for heating and drinking was circulated, and giant “lungs” were built to compensate for the expansion and contraction of the air when it was heated during the day and cooled at night. In addition, in order to prevent any penetration from outside (except for sunlight), all buildings were isolated from the surface of the earth with specially welded sheets of thick metal, the total weight of which was about 50 tons.

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Inside, the building was divided into 7 areas, which were called biomes. In each of them, various conditions existing on Earth were reproduced: tropical forest, foggy desert, mangrove swamp, ocean with a coral reef and savannah. There were 2 anthropogenic biomes, one of which included living and utility facilities, and the second was agricultural land where food crops were to be cultivated. On September 26, 1991, a group of 4 men and 4 women, including an agronomist, an oceanologist and an ecologist, the sealed doors of Biosphere-2 closed.

Together with them, under the dome were about 3 species of plants and animals, including trees and insects. The Biospherians - such a name was given to the team members - had to provide themselves with food, for which the "fields" in the biosphere were sown with, among other things, sweet potato, beets, peanuts, wheat and papaya. No chemical fertilizers were used to improve crop yields, as they could adversely affect the health of people living in isolation.

Nutrition, in which the share of plant products accounted for as much as 83%, was selected in accordance with the diet drawn up by one of the mission participants, physician Roy Walford, as part of his work to increase human life expectancy. Interestingly, the diet, which consisted almost entirely of vegetables, in particular a large amount of sweet potato, influenced in the most unexpected ways: one of the participants, Jane Poynter, had an orange skin.

But the meat of the hens that were grown in the “agricultural” biome, and the fish living in the “ocean”, the team rarely ate, about once a week. The same Jane Poynter recalled that the members of the "crew" licked plates in order not to lose a grain of nutrients.

Despite the fact that during the first year of the mission, the Biospherians complained of constant hunger and lost about 1/6 of their body weight (and one of them, Taber McCallum, lost as much as 27 kg), after the end of the experiment it turned out that the participants' vital signs improved.

Photo: Shutterstock

By the second year of stay under the dome, the weight had stabilized, even despite the fact that the problem with the persistent feeling of hunger could not be solved. In addition, medical tests taken already beyond the perimeter of Biosphere-2 showed that all members of the team improved metabolism.

Interestingly, 2 years of an almost vegetarian diet changed the digestion of mission members. Due to the small amount of meat in the diet, the enzymes responsible for its digestion disappeared.

But isolation affected animals and plants much worse. Most vertebrates taken under the dome died by the end of the first year of the experiment. And some species, on the contrary, felt quite at ease: for example, cockroaches, for example, multiplied quite actively and even played the role of plant pollinators (by that time pollinating insects taken "on board" at the beginning of the mission had died), which is not happens. In addition, pests that constantly threatened crops have bred.

Interestingly, the climate of the desert biome quickly began to resemble the climate of the savannah, as evaporating moisture condensed under the glass lining and returned to the soil in the form of rain.

The most hardy of plants of a tropical biome felt quite well in a confined space. But the trees growing in the "rainforest" and in the "savannah" had much harder. Under natural conditions, due to wind resistance, wood strengthens, and when completely calm, it thinned and the trunks began to break under its own weight.

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In addition, the trees also suffered from a lack of sunlight, which caused their leaves to turn yellow and fall off. The biggest problem for the Biospherians (apart from the constant hunger due to the lack of calories from plant foods) was the lack of oxygen. Over the 16 months since the start of the experiment, the level of this gas necessary for people has decreased from 20,9% to 14,5% - about the same at 4 km above sea level.

This negatively affected the health of some members of the mission: their fatigue increased and respiratory arrest in a dream began to occur, and Dr. Walford, who was almost 2 years old at the time in Biosphere-70, had a deterioration in his mental abilities. Therefore, the "external" project managers decided to secretly "pump" oxygen under the dome.

Photo: Shutterstock

The reason for the decrease in the amount of oxygen was found after the completion of the mission. It turned out that the germs were microbes that multiply in the soil. They turned oxygen into carbon dioxide, which, in turn, also disappeared somewhere. Oxygen and carbon dioxide reacted with concrete, forming calcium carbonate, which caused the “mysterious” disappearance.

Biospherians Taber McCallum and Jane Poynter, who met before the start of the experiment, and a few months after leaving Biosphere-2, got married, recall that once they felt the decrease in oxygen more than ever. This happened in 1992 during a total eclipse, which lasted about half an hour.

This natural phenomenon had no effect on other earthlings, but the mission members felt it in full: since the atmosphere under the dome was 19 billion times smaller than the Earth’s and plants in the absence of sunlight ceased to synthesize oxygen, the level of carbon dioxide in the confined space increased sharply.

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Relations within a small team also developed imperfectly. Jane Poynter said that by the end of the 1st year, the Biospherians were divided into 2 camps: some believed that it was necessary to shift part of the work to scientists from the outside, breaking full isolation, while others advocated the purity of the experiment.

However, all residents of the "dome" agreed that the harm done to "Biosphere-2" can adversely affect not only the overall mission, but also each of them. Therefore, despite the disagreements and overt dislike for each other, they tried to work harmoniously and efficiently to maintain their own health and the world around them, which became their home for 2 years.

Photo: Shutterstock

Roy Walford later admitted that he did not like some of the members of the “expedition”, however, both he and his colleagues overcame their dislike and coped with the task, completing the mission on time. One of the psychologists who worked with the participants after the end of the experiment said: “If I got lost in the wilds of the Amazon and looked for someone to help me survive and get out of there, then they (the Biospherians) would be the perfect choice.”

However, many years after the end of the experiment, the former "classmates" almost do not communicate and feel to each other, to put it mildly, not the warmest feelings.

On September 26, 1993, the airtight door of the building opened and the Biospherians left voluntary confinement. By that time, a negative opinion had formed in society about everything that was happening under the dome - people believed that this experiment had nothing to do with science, and the fact of the "injection" of oxygen did not add points to it. The mission was officially considered unsuccessful due to oxygen problems, proliferating pests and, finally, the tense situation in the team.

After completing the mission, Jane Poynter said: “On the day we left Biosphere 2, we had a big party with friends we had not seen for 2 years. The morning after she left a huge pile of garbage - we didn’t have it at all, we all processed it. You go to the store, look at the variety of products and understand that we take all this for granted. And it really is sobering. ”

Today, the buildings are owned by the University of Arizona, which conducts various studies related to biology and ecology. In addition, there are many tourists under the glass domes, and among other things they are shown an inscription made by one of the biospherians: “Only here we felt how dependent on the surrounding nature. If there are no trees, we will have nothing to breathe; if the water is polluted, we will have nothing to drink. ”

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