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Biosphere Crew to End Stay in a World of Their Own : Science: They have spent two years sealed in a self-sustaining ecosystem, but still face scientific doubts.

September 25, 1993|ROBERT LEE HOTZ | TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

ORACLE, Ariz. — If God had been a Texas billionaire, the Garden of Eden might have looked like Biosphere II--a wilderness under glass with a tiny ocean, where the chosen few can stroll to a desert, a tropical forest or a video conference center without leaving the house. In lieu of original sin, there are tourists.

Nestled among the prickly pear and flowering barrel cactus in the high desert outside Tucson, Biosphere II encompasses 3.15 acres of interconnected geodesic domes, crystalline enclosures, and a towering glass pyramid that, back-lit at sunset, seems pregnant with the shadow of the artificial rain forest it contains.

For two years, eight men and women have been locked inside the glistening $150-million greenhouse on the rim of the Canyon del Oro in the Santa Catalina Mountains, in an unprecedented experiment in human ecology: the development of a completely sealed, self-sustaining test-tube Earth.

While the biblical Adam and Eve were expelled from their earthly paradise, the "Biospherians," as the dome's inhabitants call themselves, will emerge voluntarily Sunday in matching flight suits to the strains of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and a media fanfare. The eight will have set a record for living in a closed system--breaking one set by a team of Russian researchers.

The crew's two-year stint as fauna in the world's largest terrarium completes the shakedown cruise of what project officials say is an open-ended ecology experiment that will last a century, to investigate the processes that sustain life on Earth and the pollution that threatens it. Their findings also may aid the design of future space colonies. A new crew plans to be sealed in the Biosphere next year.

Managing about 3,800 species of plants and animals, the crew members came close to their goal of complete self-sufficiency. They raised 88% of their food, recycled all their waste and almost all their air and nurtured a self-sustaining ocean ecosystem, project officials said.

Funded largely by Houston oil billionaire Edward P. Bass, the controversial project is a jarring mixture of serious science and New Age eco-kitsch.

Peer-reviewed research projects coexist with $13 guided tours of the grounds and souvenir stands hawking $17 Bio-2 T-shirts, $42 Biosphere watches, cans of Rain Forest Crunch, bottled "Bio-water," and fabric globes called "Hugg-A-Planet" in a theme park that is surpassed only by the Grand Canyon as Arizona's most popular tourist attraction.

During the months the crew was inside, the project weathered charges that it is a hoax or the product of a religious cult obsessed with Mars, as well as considerable criticism over the absence of verifiable scientific controls.

In January, six months after formally raising concerns over the project's scientific credibility and the project leaders' penchant for secrecy, the Biosphere board of outside science advisers resigned en masse.

Last week, several former board members still would not elaborate on their reasons. A spokesman for former board Chairman Thomas A. Lovejoy, assistant secretary for external affairs of the Smithsonian Institution, said it would not be appropriate.

When the crew emerges Sunday, they will be greeted by a crowd of enthusiasts and a wad of talk show invitations, including requests from "Nightline," "Good Morning America," "Donahue," "Maury Povich" and "The Tonight Show." Two speakers' bureaus have been hired and a book is already in galleys.

The four men and four women will step into the limelight thinner, healthier, hungrier, and, after two years in the half-light of their self-contained ecosystem, paler than when they entered on Sept. 26, 1991. While visitors can dine on lobster and leek bisque at the Biosphere Cafe, crew members have been living on a subsistence diet of about 2,200 calories a day.

Abigail Alling, 34, who tends the miniature Biosphere ocean, cheerfully confessed that she has been sustained by fantasies about her first post-Biosphere feast "starting with a chilled glass of white wine, then bread, salad, the main course, cappuccino . . . "

The crew also may be dizzy when they step outside--not from the public attention, but from the richer oxygen content and lower carbon dioxide levels in the air outside the habitat. The concentrations of carbon dioxide inside Biosphere hovered at more than four times that found in Earth's atmosphere, according to figures published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Managing the internal atmosphere was perhaps their most complex challenge. It is a testament to the rigors of the experiment that they almost did not survive.

No sooner was the crew sealed inside their new world than the biosphere started evolving an atmosphere that readily supported life--but not human beings, project scientists said.

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