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Halfway through their two-year mission-under-glass, eight me

September 23, 1992

ORACLE, Ariz. (AP) _ Halfway through their two-year mission-under-glass, eight men and women sealed in Biosphere 2 and those watching over them are trying to prove the experiment is more than a stunt.

Their goal is to operate a space colony prototype, growing their own food and tending wildlife in a three-acre, glass-and-steel complex designed to recycle air, water and waste.

Critics have said the project is unscientific because, among other things, outside air has been pumped in and a crew member who was released for medical treatment returned with supplies.

Organizers, however, hope a review by an outside panel of scientists - and some changes recommended by the experts - will give the project credibility.

Biosphere 2, on a ranch 35 miles north of Tucson, is a private, for-profit venture financed by Texas billionaire Ed Bass, who invested at least $150 million.

The experiment began with a great deal of hoopla as the four men and four women began life beyond the airlock.

But after a series of setbacks and public relations gaffes, Bass appointed an eight-member committee that includes scientists from NASA and the Smithsonian Institution to examine the project’s scientific credibility.

The panel’s initial report, released July 21, said Biosphere 2 had put commercial concerns - such as technology development and tourism - and public education ahead of science.

It recommended appointing a director of basic science, setting up a well- crafted science plan, pursuing scientific publication, taking steps to ensure accuracy and establishing a staff of scientists.

Bass said the recommendations will be carried out.

Despite its criticism, the panel was encouraging.

″The Biosphere project is one that has a lot of potential,″ said Stephen O’Brien of the National Cancer Institute. ″But whether it does get realized does depend on how willing the organizers are to implement the recommendations, or at least the spirit.″

Biosphere’s organizers point to such accomplishments as achieving an air leak rate of less than 10 percent a year and a dramatic drop in the crew members’ cholesterol and blood pressure.

″There certainly is a firm commitment to do good scientific work, and I believe that will require the implementation of the advice of the committee, which I think they’re doing,″ said crew member Dr. Roy Walford.

The fact that the crew remains inside might be the most telling achievement, Biospherian Linda Leigh said.

″So many people were repeating that we would be out right after Christmas ... and in fact we aren’t out, and I don’t think we will be out until we’re supposed to come out,″ she said.

The experiment was widely criticized after organizers belatedly announced that air leakage forced them to pump in 600,000 cubic feet of air - nearly a tenth of the structure’s atmospheric volume - in December.

Leigh said scientists understood the experiment’s validity was not compromised, but failing to announce the air-pumping in advance ″was a big mistake″ in terms of public opinion.

In the past year, the oxygen level has dropped below that outside and is now equivalent to the oxygen content at 9,000 to 10,000 feet, rather than about 4,400 feet.

Bees have disappeared, as have hummingbirds. Overall, 15 percent to 30 percent of the original 3,800 species of plant and animal have been lost.

As for the crew, a low-fat, high-density diet developed by Walford is believed responsible for a 35 percent drop in Biospherians’ blood cholesterol levels.

After a smaller-than-expected harvest blamed on cloudy weather, rations were cut from 2,300 calories a day to about 2,000. The Biospherians on average lost 14 percent of their weight, Walford said.

Even with the hardships, Walford said he misses just one thing that cannot be produced by Biosphere 2′s natural systems: ″A glass of scotch in the evening.″

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