On Sept. 26, 1991, eight scientists donned space-age jumpsuits, waved goodbye to a cheering audience and a bullpen loaded with news cameras, and entered Biosphere 2—3.14 acres of enclosed space designed to mimic the Earth’s environment. Their mission: Test humanity’s ability to operate and function within a closed environment, live completely detached from our planet’s resources (save for sunlight), and come out the other side with evidence that humanity can sustain life off the surface of Earth.
And was it possible? Could humans survive in an engineered biodome divorced of the Earth’s resources? Short answer: No. Long answer: Well, it’s complicated.
Built in the desert near Oracle, Arizona, Biosphere 2 was funded by businessman and philanthropist Ed Bass, the second-oldest son in the Bass family. At the time, the Bass family was one of the four wealthiest families in America. The brains behind the operation: John P. Allen, an ecologist who was just as interested in performance theater as he was with the planet. Biosphere 2 ended up being a bit of both: An opportunity to produce real-time results for problems not easily solved while giving the country the most expensive reality show, a full decade before the Big Brother craze. As one scientist interviewed in archival footage puts it: Biosphere 2 is nothing more than “trendy, ecological entertainment.”
The frustrating aspect of Biosphere 2 is that it didn’t have to be. But when the going got tough, the tough cheated. When one scientist, or Biospherian as the media called them, severed her finger in a seed thresher, the biosphere committed decided to open the door and sent her to surgery at a nearby hospital. If this were a test to see if a biosphere could work on the Moon, wouldn’t they send a surgeon in with them? It’s okay, the company assured the media, she won’t introduce any biological contaminates by abstaining from food and drink while outside the dome. Great, the media said, but what’s in those two large duffle bags she’s taking back inside with her. Well, never mind that.
There were other issues with transparency, specifically how the biosphere was disposing of carbon dioxide and gaining fresh oxygen. Science or no science, this episode seems to be the study’s greatest liability. That’s probably why the company went ahead and piped in fresh-air. Otherwise, the Biosphereians would asphyxiate or kill eat other from irritability. Again, if the dome were located on the sunny side of Mars, it’d be pretty hard to open a window when things got stuffy.
If Biosphere 2 did collect any usable data, it was lost in the shuffle of the company’s chicanery as they covered-up one crisis after the other. But, according to the wealth of archival footage director Matt Wolf includes in his documentary, Spaceship Earth, it doesn’t look like a whole lot of people fell for it in the first place.
That’s also the problem with Spaceship Earth; Wolf takes so long setting the table that by the time he gets to the meal, you’re ready for bed. The modern-day interviews with the biospherians are simultaneously unnecessary and not enough of the focus. And the third act arrival of Steve Bannon is such an out of left field gut punch you almost wonder if Wolf is having a laugh by digital editing the former Breitbart editor into the doc. He’s didn’t, Bannon is very much a player in this strange little story. A shame it wasn’t told better.
Spaceship Earth (2020)
Directed by Matt Wolf
Produced by Stacey Reiss, Matt Wolf
Neon, Not rated, Running time 113 minutes, Streaming.