Cabinet Magazine looks at one of the strangest experiments in American history, the Biosphere, a Lord of the Flies-style misadventure in utopian scientific overoptimism that spawned a terrible Pauly Shore movie and a fad diet:
At 8:15 am on 26 September 1991, eight “bionauts,” as they called themselves, wearing identical red Star Trek–like jumpsuits (made for them by Marilyn Monroe’s former dressmaker) waved to the assembled crowd and climbed through an airlock door in the Arizona desert. They shut it behind them and opened another that led into a series of hermetically sealed greenhouses in which they would live for the next two years.
The three-acre complex of interconnected glass Mesoamerican pyramids, geodesic domes, and vaulted structures contained a tropical rain forest, a grassland savannah, a mangrove wetland, a farm, and a salt-water ocean with a wave machine and gravelly beach. This was Biosphere 2—the first biosphere being Earth—a $150 million experiment designed to see if, in a climate of nuclear and ecological fear, the colonization of space might be possible.
Before entering, the Biosphere’s pioneer inhabitants had enjoyed a final, hearty breakfast consisting of ham, eggs, and buttered bread, but from here on, they would be self-sufficient—everything they ate would be grown, processed, and prepared in their airtight bubble. A few years before designing the Biosphere, architect Phil Hawes had proposed a space city 110 feet in diameter, a flying doughnut that would spin to create its own gravity and in which miniature animals could be kept and plants cultivated, along with a store of cryogenically frozen seed for the propagation of twenty thousand other species.
Tourists came by the busload to peer through the glass at the bionauts, trapped in their vivarium like laboratory rats (the project was an acknowledged precursor to the Big Brother reality-TV show). Over the first six months, 159,000 people visited, including William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary.
When the crew emerged from the experiment after two years, the project was judged by the media to be a failure. Early in the second year, carbon dioxide levels had risen so high (twelve times that of the outside) that the crew were growing faint and Walford asked for more oxygen to be pumped into the structure on two occasions. The Biosphere had proved not to be a self-sufficient, autonomous world as it would need to be if it were to become a base station on another planet. In 1999, Time magazine judged it one of the hundred worst ideas of the twentieth century.
The year after his release, Walford began the Calorie Restriction Society, which now has seven thousand members. The CRONIES, as Walford’s devotees refer to themselves, live at the border of self-starvation, in the hope of delayed gratification; like their mentor, they live in their own biosphere, a self-absorbed bubble of discipline and resolve, and maintain the science-fiction dream of an age when we will all be able to live forever.