Deep in the desert outside of a little town called Oracle, there exists one of the most impressive structures built in all of Arizona: Biosphere 2. It started with this intense futurist dream of space colonization, moved onto a much-publicized science experiment, and eventually landed as a branch of the University of Arizona. Prepare for a trip into the future of the past!
The structure was first built to see how humans could survive in a self-contained environment (think space colony). The name Biosphere 2 comes from the idea that the planet earth is our Biosphere 1. There were a few manned missions in the Biosphere, but due to cloudy weather reducing crop harvest, grueling manual labor, and stress induced by the above conditions and clashing personalities, many thought the missions were a failure. Not all share that sentiment, however. One former Biospherian, as they were called, did an interview for the new Biosphere management. In it, she said that whenever she hears that it was a failure, she likes to bring them to the structure and show them around, show them the intense engineering that went into making this structure a reality. That, she says, is the real success of the Biosphere: that we can make this complex space colony structure; we have the resources and the talent to do so.
In 2011, the University of Arizona purchased the floundering Biosphere 2 and has changed its focused from live-in missions to dedicated climate change research. One woman on the tour asked why there were no more live-in missions. Our guide replied that the original goal of the Biosphere 2 team was to create a facility that would host research to benefit humanity for tomorrow. Back in the 80s, the idea was that space habitation was the way to ensure humanity’s success. Nowadays, however, the more urgent focus is on climate change: How to slow it down and prevent it and how these changes will impact our planet.
The two things I love about Biosphere 2 are its ideals and its architecture. It was built in the era of 80s futurism, with the starry-eyed ideals of exploration, international cooperation, and the goal to make sci-fi a reality. The architecture is a wonder in and of itself: Nearly completely self-contained biomes that can be adjusted via a complex series of cooling and heating tubes, humidity controls, and beautiful Arizona sunlight. They even have large “lung” structures that controlled the airflow and can adjust their own size, depending on the pressure of the room. The whole place brought up fond memories of being a child and getting captured in the awe and excitement of the then pretty current tech and optimism for the future in Epcot Center’s Future World. You can even see similarities in the structures between the two projects: The bright white lattice work for the glass encasing, sharp triangles in the geometry, and so on.
Rarely do places capture my imagination as this place has. If you have the time, I would highly recommend you visit Biosphere 2. There is so much history, optimism, and science crammed into that structure I couldn’t possibly do it justice with my short blog post. Rest assured, it’s a magical place for those interested in the past’s interpretation of the future, science, technology, geology, nature, or psychology. Well worth the price of admission!