Building a Miniature Planet Earth Is Hard, But We Keep Trying

So far, all experiments have ended with crews running low on oxygen and fighting each other. This is a problem if we're to ever reach Mars.

by Nat Kassel
04 March 2020, 2:19am

Biosphere 2. Photo by Katja Schulz, via a Wikimedia 2.0 Generic license

This article accompanies our latest episode of Extremes, which is a podcast from VICE, exclusive to Spotify. In episode two, we speak to Jane Poynter who spent two years locked inside Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert. You can listen to the show for free, right here

It’s been almost 51 years since the world watched Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon and since then, space travel has changed dramatically. In 2004, a self-trained pilot named Mike Melvill flew the first private vehicle into space, proving that space travel could be achieved with or without NASA. Then, 10 years later, in 2014, another pilot named Michael Alsbury died in the crash of a Virgin Galactic test flight, reinforcing how high the stakes are for the fledgling space travel industry. More recently though, there’s been talk about colonising Mars, which is about 54.6 million kilometres away.

In 2018 Elon Musk spoke publicly at SXSW, laying out his grim vision for interplanetary colonisation: “It will be like Shackleton’s ad for Antarctic explorers. Difficult, dangerous, a good chance you’ll die, excitement for those who survive. That kind of thing. There’s not many people who will want to go in the beginning.”

One of the major challenges for surviving on Mars (or any other planet) is that humans will have to create a self-sustaining biome in which to live. In other words, we'll have to build a giant bubble that can recycle its own air and water, while growing plants and disposing of waste. Ideally, this closed environment will be able to sustain itself in perpetuity with no resources imported from outside, except light and heat from the sun. But perhaps the biggest challenge is housing people in isolated long-term confinement. Can the human mind reliably withstand that kind of environment for years on end?

Well, as it turns out, we've made a few noteworthy efforts to find out.

In 1960, NASA managed to convince four astronauts to crawl inside a hermetically sealed pod at the Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. Once inside, these men had no contact with the outside world and no set date for when they would emerge. The experiment was called the NASA Living Pod and it was one of the first human forays into creating an enclosed self-sustaining environment.

But it turned out to be more difficult than NASA had expected. The waste filtration system got clogged with hair and fingernails, polluting the air with microscopic waste. According to architectural historian Lydia Kallipoliti, “In this enclosed experiment, the subjects experienced nausea, headaches, and eventually contaminated the system with their own waste… eventually the subjects had to be removed from the cabin earlier than expected.” They lasted four months.

The eight-member crew of Biosphere 2. Photo by Tim Roberts / AFP

Thirty-odd years later, in 1991, an experiment called Biosphere 2 took a more ambitious approach to creating a man-made self-sustaining biome. Instead of a pod, Biosphere 2 was a massive glasshouse, the size of a shopping mall, built in the middle of the Arizona desert a few hours from Phoenix. It spanned more than three acres and was equipped with a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, a mangrove area, a desert and a farm. It also contained laboratories, workshops and living quarters. The facility cost around USD $250 million to build and was mostly funded by a Texan oil family fronted by philanthropist Ed Bass. Biosphere 2 was completely sealed from the outside world—tighter than the international space station—and still today remains the biggest closed system of its kind ever created.

The biospherians met friends and visitors at a window of Biosphere 2. From left: Taber MacCallum, Abigail Alling, Mark van Thillo and Jane Poynter

In September 1991, eight scientists—four men and four women—entered Biosphere 2 to begin an experiment. They were going to live inside the biome for exactly two years. Jane Poynter was one of the “biospherians” (the title given to those who were brave enough to commit to two years inside this alternative world).

“When we closed the doors behind ourselves to start the two-year mission, it was eerie,” Poynter told VICE. “It was completely silent for the very first time and we were all alone starting the experiment. It was at one time unbelievably intimidating and incredibly exciting.”

The biospherian handshake. Here the crew talks with (right) Dr. Oleg Gazenko, Director of the Institute of BioMedical Problems, Moscow and (left) John P. Allen, Executive Chairman and inventor of Biosphere 2. Photo by Abigail Alling

Jane and her fellow biospherians stayed busy in their new home, maintaining their microcosm, producing their own food and conducting scientific research in the afternoons. They had a nutritious diet, but it was low on calories and low on fat, which meant that they were hungry pretty much all the time. This turned out to be a recipe for tension.

“You could cut the atmosphere in there with a knife, it was so thick and so tense. Everybody just really kept it bottled up. I mean seriously bottled up,” says Jane, recalling a time when two of her housemates spat peanuts in her face. “I never thought for an instant that anybody would intentionally try to hurt me but there was so much upset and hurt and anger in the biosphere before we came out, I mean, everybody was feeling it.”

Abigail Alling tends to one of the world's largest artificial coral reefs. Photo by Gonzalo Arcila

Then there was the unexpected loss of oxygen—eventually pegged on a surplus of microbes in the soil—which turned the biospherians a bit loopy. They experienced fatigue, sleep apnoea, temporary confusion and even hallucinations. After much debate, it was decided that the biosphere would be injected with oxygen from outside. But by that point, the eight people in the biosphere had split into two opposing factions. It was four versus four, and the conflict continued.

Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter formed a band during their two years inside, incorporating the facility’s soundscape in their music. Photo by Abigail Alling

While it all sounds a bit Lord of the Flies, Jane went on to marry her boyfriend Taber MacCallum, who had spent two years with her in the biosphere. So it wasn’t all bad. In fact, the experiment was largely a success. Just as they planned, the eight scientists managed to live in the biosphere for a full two years, cultivating their own food and leaving behind a legacy of important research and paving the way for the development of closed-system architecture. Though it all happened 30 years ago, Biosphere 2 remains the most comprehensive and successful blueprint for human interaction in a closed environment so far.

Harvesting Biosphere 2’s small but productive 0.2 hectare farm. The agricultural system used no toxic chemicals and recycled nutrients to maintain soil fertility. Photo by Abigail Alling

More recently, a company called AI SpaceFactory has developed a product called Marsha, which is essentially a space house that is designed for life on Mars. The pod is approximately five metres high and three metres wide, and is marketed as “a bright, multi-level, corridor-free home that stands upright on the surface of Mars”. But perhaps the most impressive part is that one of these pods can be 3D printed and assembled in 30 hours without any human assistance.

These space houses are pretty impressive, and Elon Musk’s Big Fucking Rocket will likely be pretty impressive too. But the psychological effects of living in this kind of environment still represent a significant hurdle for interplanetary colonisation. And while it’s true that life in a self-sustaining biome on Mars is theoretically possible, humans are still a long way from figuring it out.

To hear more about the day-to-day practicalities, conflicts, and food voyeurism that went on in Biosphere 2, click here to listen to VICE’s new podcast, "Extremes"