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The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments

Biosphere 2 was an idea that was born in the 1970s. What if we could recreate the systems that supported life on earth in miniature? Then we could study those systems and learn better how to care for our planet, or else survive its destruction. The idea of the self-contained ecosystem itself was attractive to those considering how to maintain human life while traveling to and exploring other planets. The private company Space Biospheres Ventures built Biosphere 2, and in 1991, they put eight people inside for two years. It was quite a few more years before the full story of what went on inside became known to the public.  

It soon became clear that raising food in Biosphere 2 was a major challenge. The weather was cloudy for the first few months of the mission, stunting the growth of crops. The Biospherians had to break into a three-month supply of food that had been secretly stored away before the doors had closed.

Then Biosphere 2 began to lose oxygen because the soil had spawned an explosion of oxygen-gulping bacteria. The crew felt as if they were living at 14,000 feet. A truckload of liquid oxygen finally saved them; as soon as the gas began spraying into Biosphere 2, they began racing around in joy.

The company running Biosphere 2 had its own problems outside. A management shakeup, lawsuits, and sabotage followed. Biosphere 2 was considered a failure. However, in science, even failures teach us something. Here, we learned a lot of things about how difficult it is to scale a planet-wide ecosystem into a small community. Read the story of Biosphere 2 as told by Carl Zimmer at the New York Times. -via Strange Company


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