Tag Archives: Mark Van Thillo

The crazy world inside and outside the Dome

Remember BioSphere 2? This was that giant enclosed environment, designed by John Allen and a host of environmental scientists during the 1980s, and financed by enigmatic Texas oil billionaire Edward Perry Bass’s Decisions Investments company.  The design team had the goal of creating a totally enclosed environment consisting of various biomes (enclosed environments representative of various environments on Earth). They built in a rainforest, a savannah, jungle, agriculture, desert and other variations of environment. The stated purpose of Biosphere 2 was to explore the myriad interactions in an environment with an ultimate goal of containing them for Spaceship Travel and possible colonization of other planets. Can we take the “stuff that works in Biosphere 1 (the Biosphere 2 team nickname for Earth, get it?) and cram it into a container? Is it that malleable and transferable? Well, that’s a tall order, scientifically speaking. They certainly made a grand effort, adding thousands upon thousands of soils, bacteria, flora and fauna into the giant four acre facility. For my money, this is an important question that will need to be answered if we can ever leave this rock we call a home. There’s just no way we can colonize other planets without taking a workable, viable and sustainable “Earth” with us. The Biosphere 2 project was designed to have a crew of eight live in it for two years– totally enclosed inside the environmental shell and with no contact with the outside world beyond phone calls and email. Dutifully, a team of four men and four women did enter the Biosphere in 1991: Roy Walford, Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, and Linda Leigh. They stayed inside for two years and 20 minutes.  That’s where the fun begins..

The goal of the team was to grow 100% of food required to live in the biosphere for two years.  They did come very near that goal– 80% of what they ate was grown and fertilized by the crew and other fauna on the biosphere during the first two years, the  other 20% was drawn from a three month supply of food that was grown inside the facility before the experiment began and from seed reserve.  So in terms of productivity, the four acres inside the Biosphere was probably the most productive in North America during those two years.   That sounds like a rosy picture but the first year was not a picnic in any sense.  The crew experienced continual hunger in the first year, but by the second, they were generating a surplus.  Mostly sweet potatoes, according to Jane Poynter’s TED Talk (which is worth watching).

Although many years of design contributed to Biosphere 2, you can’t anticipate everything.  CO2 levels fluctuated wildly during the two year stay, contributing to species die-offs inside including all vertebrates and pollinating insects.  Roaches and a local variety of ant that had been accidently sealed in during the experiment filled the niches left by their absence.  If your memory stretches back that far, you might recall the rapid decline of Oxygen inside the Biosphere during the first experiment.  Even though the structure was built to be more leak-proof than NASA testing centers, Oxygen was leaving the environment at an alarming rate during the the first year.  Oxygen inside the facility, which began at 20.9%, fell at a steady pace and after 16 months was down to 14.5%. This is equivalent to the oxygen availability at an elevation of 4,080 meters.  Crew members began to complain of loss of concentration, fatigue and pain, so the decision was made to insert more O2 into the system to ‘bring it into balance’.   Oxygen doesn’t just “leave” an atmosphere without conversion into some other form.. so where it went was a continuing mystery during the first mission, until the culprit was discovered in the massive amounts of unsealed concrete inside the structure, which leached oxygen aggressively.

I have to wonder what the group dynamic was inside the dome.  Three healthy adults of both sexes inside an enclosed environment for two years.. hmm.. no huge surprise that Poynter and MacCallum were married a week after they emerged.   The hijinks inside were nothing compared to the managerial problems outside.    In 1994, the managerial and technical teams started planning for a second, shorter experiment of ten months duration.  During the transition period between missions, extensive research and system improvements had been undertaken. Concrete was sealed to prevent uptake of carbon dioxide. The second mission began on March 6, 1994, with an announced run of ten months. Crew was Norberto Alvarez (Capt.), John Druitt, Matt Finn, Pascale Maslin, Charlotte Godfrey, Rodrigo Romo and Tilak Mahato. The second crew achieved complete sufficiency in food production.  Many of the technical problems were being overcome.  However, the managerial/corporate side was experiencing big problems.  The project was put into receivership and an outside management team was installed for the receiver to turn around the floundering project. The reason for the dispute was threefold. Mismanagement of mission had caused terrible publicity, financial mismanagement and lack of research. People alleged gross financial mismanagement of the project, leading to a loss of $25 million in fiscal 1992.  Acrimony between the Faithful (by that, I mean the those who conceived the project and contributed to the design) and the “Suits” must have been intense, as two of the original crew (Alling and Von Thillo)  allegedly broke in and attempted to sabotage the dome during the second experiment to break out the crew that was currently in residence, apparently as a response to the managerial implosion that was taking place in front of their eyes.

Donella Mathews (cited above) received this version from Alling:

I just received a letter from Abigail Alling — now charged with felony for the break-in — giving her version of the April events.  The letter says in part:  “On April 1, 1994, at approximately 10 AM … limousines arrived on the biosphere site … with two investment bankers hired by Mr. Bass ….  They arrived with a temporary restraining order to take over direct control of the project ….  With them were 6-8 police officers hired by the Bass organization….  They immediately changed locks on the offices ….  All communication systems were changed (telephone and access codes), and [we] were prevented from receiving any data regarding safety, operations, and research of Biosphere 2.”

Alling emphasizes several times in her letter that the “bankers” who suddenly took over “knew nothing technically or scientifically, and little about the biospherian crew.”

“I judged it my ethical duty to give the team of seven biospherians [inside Biosphere 2] the choice to continue with the drastically changed human experiment …, or to leave….  It was not clear what they had been told of the new situation.”

This probably was regarded as odd behavior from Ed Bass, who despite his Texas Oil money has always been attuned to ecological and scientific concerns relating to the environment.  I’m sure we’ll never find out exactly what transpired.  The ownership and management company Space Biospheres Ventures was officially dissolved on June 1, 1994.  This left the scientific and business management of the mission to the interim turnaround team, who had been contracted by the financial partner, Decisions Investment Co.

The second experiment  was ended prematurely on September 6, 1994.

In the ensuing years, Decisions Investment put Biosphere 2 up for sale in 2004 and in 2007   the site was sold for $50 million to CDO Ranching & Development, L.P. 1,500 houses and a resort hotel were planned, but the main structure was still to be available for research and educational use.  The University of Arizona acquired ownership in 2007 and has run it as a research facility and (more importantly) a tourist attraction ever since.

What did the Biosphere 2 teach us?  Obviously a great deal.  Important insights were gained about environments inside a closed system and experiments are continuing (admittedly on a less grander scale) to this day.  We’ll get to Mars, yet.  However, I can’t help thinking that Biosphere 2 was years ahead of its time.  Imagine the reality television show that could have been made from recording this experiment over two years!  The whole experiment could have been funded by advertising revenue if they had been just a tiny bit ahead of the curve.  Big Brother has nothing on Biosphere 2.