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Biosphere 2: A Faulty Mars Survival Test Gets a Second Act

In 1991, eight people sealed themselves inside a giant glass biosphere to practice space living. By the time they emerged, they had “suffocated, starved and went mad.”

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... (FORMER REPORTER, VILLAGE VOICE): They ordered and installed a CO2 scrubber, which is a machine that you use on a submarine. NARRATION: Marc Cooper broke the story. MARC COOPER: It made the entire experiment worthless, whatever value it had. I don’t think it had any value in the first place.

... (FORMER REPORTER, VILLAGE VOICE): They ordered and installed a CO2 scrubber, which is a machine that you use on a submarine. NARRATION: Marc Cooper broke the story. MARC COOPER: It made the entire experiment worthless, whatever value it had. I don’t think it had any value in the first place.

NARRATION: In the months before the Biosphere 2 launch, Cooper’s exposés revealed that most of the Biospherians had little academic training as scientists, and that their project was born of a startling past.

MARC COOPER: There was a book written about cults back in 1969, and there’s a whole chapter about these guys on their original commune.

ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 9-26-91):

REPORTER: Back in the Sixties and Seventies, some of the people running Biosphere 2 had a little theater group and lived together on a commune. Their leader was a fellow who went by the nickname Johnny Dolphin. He is John Allen, and it is his philosophies that inspired Biosphere 2.

NARRATION: According to Cooper, the real story behind Biosphere 2 was Allen’s driving philosophy that the earth was doomed and that mankind could achieve “cosmic immortality” by building biospheres in outer space.

MARC COOPER: The media’s running around with its hair on fire saying “oh this a great thing because this is going to help us understand the environment, help us save the environment, help us save the world.” In fact these people had already made the decision that Earth was doomed, that they were not God’s chosen people, but they were their own chosen people to propagate humanity on another planet!

NARRATION: Biospherians Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum say space colonization was only a distant goal, and that Cooper’s characterizations of the group and their work were overblown.

TABER MACCALLUM: You take the definition of a cult and, you know, many companies and organizations fit it. You know, yes we were a very, very tight-knit group with some very, very charismatic leaders. In some ways that’s what it takes to do something as totally off the charts as Biosphere 2.

NARRATION: By the end of the two-year mission, the Biospherians, in the words of Jane Poynter, had suffocated, starved and gone mad. The group split into factions, disagreed over scientific goals, and barely spoke to one another. Nevertheless, they put aside their differences to re-emerge triumphantly for the cameras. But the looming question remained.

ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 9-26-93):

PAULA ZAHN: Many are still asking, was it good science?

JANE POYNTER: It was an experiment. This was something that nobody ever tried before, so things were going to go wrong. As soon as things did go wrong, I mean it really did fall.

NARRATION: In 1994, Ed Bass brought in new management and ended manned missions at Biosphere 2. John Allen returned to his ranch in New Mexico, and Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum got married that summer on the Biosphere lawn. As for the Biosphere 2 story, it simply faded away, popping up only occasionally, and in less than flattering company…

ARCHIVAL (BIO-DOME, 1996):

STEPHEN BALDWIN:Welcome to Bio-Dome.

PAULY SHORE: Welcome to the future.

BOTH: Viva los Bio-Dome! Viva los Bio-Dome!

NARRATION: Biosphere 2 failed as a human habitat, but in the mid 1990s, was transformed into a research facility, and led, for a time, by Steve Bannon, who would become President Trump’s chief political strategist.

ARCHIVAL (YOUTUBE, 1995):

STEVE BANNON: It’s been referred to in the past as a ‘planet in a bottle.’ This actually allows them to study and monitor the impact of enhanced CO2 and other greenhouse gases on humans, plants and animals.

JOHN ADAMS: Welcome to Biosphere 2.

NARRATION: Today, the structure is owned by the University of Arizona and is considered the world’s largest earth science laboratory, producing important research on issues like climate. JOHN ADAMS (ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, BIOSPHERE 2): Most laboratory research and growth chambers that you have are ...