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Out of Control

The appropriate out-of-controlness started on a ramshackle ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico. During the commune heydays of the early 1970s, the ranch collected a typically renegade group of cultural misfits. Most communes then were freewheeling. This one, named Synergia Ranch, wasn't; it demanded discipline and hard work. Rather than lie back and whine while the apocalypse approached, the New Mexican commune worked on how it might build something to transcend the ills of society. They came up with several designs for giant arks of sanity. The more grandiose their mad ark visions got, the more interested in the whole idea they all became.

It was the commune's architect, Phil Hawes, who came up with the galvanizing idea. At a 1982 conference in France, Hawes presented a mock-up of a spherical, transparent spaceship. Inside the glass sphere were gardens, apartments, and a pool beneath a waterfall. "Why not look at life in space as a life instead of merely travel?" Hawes asked. "Why not build a spaceship like the one we've been traveling on?" That is, why not create a living satellite instead of hammering together a dead space station? Reproduce the holistic nature of Earth itself as a tiny transparent globe sailing through space. "We knew it would work," said John Allen, the ranch's charismatic leader, "because that's what the biosphere does every day. We just had to get the size right."

The Synergians stuck with the private vision of a living ark long after they left the ranch. In 1983, Ed Bass of Texas, one of the ranch's former members, used part of his extraordinary family oil fortune to finance a proof-of-concept prototype.

Unlike NASA, the Synergians wouldn't rely on technology as the solution. Their idea was to stuff as many biological systems -- plants, animals, insects, fish, and microorganisms -- as they possibly could into a sealed glass dome, and then rely on the emergent system's own self-stabilizing tendencies to self-organize a biospheric atmosphere. Life is in the business of making its environment agreeable for life. If you could get a bunch of life together and then give it enough freedom to cultivate the conditions it needed to thrive, it would go forever, and no one needed to understand how it worked.

Indeed, neither they nor biologists had any real idea of how one plant worked -- what's its exact needs and products were -- and no idea at all of how a distributed miniecosystem sealed in a hut would work. Instead, they would rely on decentralized, uncontrolled life to sort itself out and come to some self-enhancing harmony.

No one had ever built any living thing that large. Even Gomez hadn't built his coral reef yet. The Synergians had only a vague notion of Clair Folsome's ecospheres and even vaguer knowledge of the Russian Bios-3 experiments.

The group, now calling itself Space Biosphere Ventures (SBV), and financed to the tune of tens of millions of dollars by Ed Bass, designed and built a tiny cottage-size test unit during the mid-1980s. The hut was crammed with a greenhouse-worth of plants, some fancy plumbing for recycling water, black boxes of sensitive environmental monitoring equipment, a tiny kitchenette and bathroom, and lots of glass.

In September 1988, for three days, John Allen sealed himself in for the unit's first trial run. Much like Evgenii Shepelev's bold step, this was a act of faith. The plants had been selected by rational guess, but there was nothing controlled about how well they would work as a system. Contrary to Gomez's hard-won knowledge about sequencing, the SBV folks just threw everything in together, at once. The sealed home depended on at least some of the individual plants being able to keep up with the lungs of one man.

The test results were very encouraging. Allen wrote in his journal for September 12: "It appears we are getting close to equilibrium, the plants, soil, water, sun, night and me." In the confined loop of a 100 percent recycled atmosphere, 47 trace gases, "all of which were probably anthropogenic in origin," fell to minute levels when the air of the hut was sent through the plant soil -- an old technique modernized by SBV. Unlike Shepelev's case, when Allen stepped out, the air inside was fresh, ready for more human life. To someone outside, a whiff of the air inside was shockingly moist, thick, and "green."

The data from Allen's trial suggested a human could live in the hut for a while. Biologist Linda Leigh would later spend three weeks in the small glass shed. After her 21-day solo drive Leigh told me, "At first I was concerned whether I'd be able to stand breathing in there, but after two weeks I hardly noticed the moisture. In fact I felt invigorated, more relaxed, and healthier, probably because of the air-cleansing and oxygen-producing nature of close plants. The atmosphere even in that small space was stable. I felt that the test module could have gone on for the full two years and kept its atmosphere right."

During the three-week run, the sophisticated internal monitoring equipment indicated no buildup of gases either from building materials or biological sources. Although the atmosphere was stable overall, it was sensitive to perturbations which caused it to vacillate easily. While harvesting sweet potatoes out of their dirt beds in the hut, Leigh's digging disturbed CO2-producing soil organisms. The rattled bugs temporarily altered the CO2- concentration in the module's air. This was an illustration of the butterfly effect. In complex systems a small alteration in the initial conditions can amplify into wide-ranging effects throughout the rest of the system. The principle is usually illustrated by the fantasy of the flap of a butterfly's wings in Beijing triggering a hurricane in Florida. Here in SBV's sealed glass cottage the butterfly effect appeared in miniature: by wiggling her fingers Leigh upset the balance of the atmosphere.

John Allen and another Synergian, Mark Nelson, envisioned a near-future Mars station built as a mammoth closed-system bottle. Allen and Nelson gradually formulated a hybrid technology -- called ecotechnics -- based on a convergence of both machines and living organisms to support future human habitats.

They were dead serious about going to Mars and began working out the details. In order to journey to Mars or beyond, you needed a crew. How many people would you need? Military captains, expedition leaders, start-up managers, and crisis centers had long recognized that a team of eight was the ideal number for any complex hazardous project. More than eight people, and decisions got slow and squirrely; less than eight, accidents and ignorance became serious handicaps. Allen and Nelson settled on a crew of eight.

Next step: how big would you have to make a bottle-world to shelter, feed, water, and oxygenate eight people indefinitely?

Human requirements were well established. Each day a human adult needed about half a kilogram of food, a kilo of oxygen, 1.8 kilos of drinking water, FDA amounts of vitamins, and a couple of gallons of water for washing. Clair Folsome had extrapolated the results of his tiny ecospheres and calculated that you would need a sphere with a radius of 58 meters -- half air and half microbial soup -- to support the oxygen needs for one person indefinitely. Allen and Nelson then took the data from the Russian Bios-3 experiments and combined it with Folsome's, Salisbury's, and others' intensive farming harvest results. They estimated that right now -- with the knowledge and technology of 1980s -- they could support eight adults on...three acres of land.

Three acres! The transparent container would have to be the size of the Astrodome. Such a span would demand at least a 50-foot ceiling. Clothed in glass, it would be quite a sight. And quite expensive.

But it would be magnificent! They would build it! And they did, with the further help of Ed Bass-to the tune of $100 million. Hard-hat construction of the 8-person ark began in 1988. The Synergians called the grand project Biosphere 2 (Bio2), a bonsai version of Biosphere 1, our Earth. It took three years to build.