Jane Poynter tells the story of The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2.
In September 1991, four men and four women sealed themselves inside a miniature replica of Planet Earth called Biosphere 2. They promised to live cut off from the outside world for two years. Nothing would go in or out of their three-acre terrarium - no food, no water, not even air. They would survive on the food they grew, the water they recycled, and the oxygen they created. Now, for the first time, one of those crewmembers tells the inside story of what really happened at the controversial, $250-million project. Some called the experiment a fraud and its proponents a cult. Dr. Jane Goodall calls Poynter's account "a fantastic adventure into the heart of one of the most innovative experiments of the past 30 years." Poynter recounts a life inside Biosphere 2 far from the new Eden proponents had envisioned - hunger, sickness, psychological stress, and shattered friendships were common, combined with celebrations and moments of great joy.
When I left Biosphere 2 I was angry and traumatized. I couldn't separate the bad from the good. I couldn't have written this book ten years ago. But there is still so much misinformation circulating about the project, I thought people needed to know the real story - and to understand why Biosphere 2 is of such scientific and cultural importance- Jane Poynter
Jane Poynter is one of only eight people ever in history to live sealed in an artificial world for two years. Janeâ€™s preparation for Biosphere 2 involved training to survive in the Australian Outback and onboard a concrete research boat in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. She was part of the Biosphere from the start, ultimately managing the farm where the crew grew its food.
She is now President of Paragon Space Development Corporation, an aerospace firm that she co-founded with several engineers and fellow biospherian, Taber MacCallum, while inside Biosphere 2. Since leaving the project, Jane has had experiments flown on the International Space Station, the Russian Mir Space Station, and the U.S. Space Shuttle. Currently, she and Paragon are developing life support systems for astronauts and Navy deep-sea divers â€“ and Jane recently started Yogi and Company, a multi-media production company.
Jane and Taber married a year after exiting Biosphere 2. They live in Tucson, Arizona, where they race motorcycles on weekends.
Jane has appeared on many television shows and has been interviewed for numerous magazine and newspaper articles about Biosphere 2 and her work in space and the environment.
On a much more pleasant note, we're very pleased to welcome Jane Poynterauthor of The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes InsideBiosphere 2.0. Or not 2.0, sorry. Do you...louder. You can hear me okay? Is this? Okay.Jane probably has a much louder voice than I do. I have a very softvoice. It's something I was cursed with, I blame my parents.Anyway, please help me welcome Jane.Yeah, I was not born with a soft voice. They didn't call me Foghornfor no reason. Except the train doesn't help very much! Okay, well,good evening everybody. So what I thought I'd do is, first of all,read a little bit from my book, The Human Experiment, and thenwe'll turn it over to you guys and you can talk about whatever you want to talk about.Within reason. So. Here we go, I hope...nope. Okay,I'm just going to do the old-fashioned way and push the button.Eight o'clock in the morning on September the 26th, 1993.I stood in my prickly blue jumpsuit with the other seven inmates ofthe bubble, as some of us like to call it. We waited for the radio announcement that itwas time to walk through the double-doored air lock. The mission was finallyover. I would like to say that I was pondering heady thoughts about thefuture of mankind, but all I could think of was how much I wishedthat dear Jane Goodall would shut up! I have the deepest respect for my fellowcountrywoman who has dedicated her life to the study and conservation ofchimpanzees, taught us that apes use tools and laugh too, and caused usto re-define what it is that makes us human. But as Jane gave thekeynote speech leading to our reentry into the world, into what we called Biosphere1, the minutes ticked by with agonizing slowness. "Come on, people,"I muttered to myself, "I signed up for two years...not twoyears and one minute, or two minutes. Only two years."8:10: Jane...let us apes out of the cage.8:15: Finally some screeching over the radio told us to scurry to the heavymetal airlock fashioned out of submarine bulkheads years earlier. It was 8:20.We stepped in, the door swinging closed behind us with a bang and scrape of theclosure mechanism and the outer door opened. One by one, we steppedout of our simple life of milking goats and weeding the garden.Of weather reports that included, along with temperature and humidityreadings, the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. We left thedaily struggle with tedium and discord and stepped intoapplause, handshakes, a trumpeted fanfare, a sea of cameras, backslaps.For the first time in two years and twenty minutes, I inhaled the view of thebright desert sky with no white bars bisecting it into geometric patterns.The air seemed insipid, thin, not the thick atmosphereredolent with molecules from plants, fungi, animals, thepungent, pleasant, and unmistakable earthy fragrance of Biosphere 2.Since September 26, 1991, the eight of us had risked much to live as ifon Mars, farming all our food, recycling our water, our waste, and even the oxygenwe breathed in our hermetically sealed, 3.15 acre world. Therainforest, Savanna, desert, ocean, and marsh had been our invitro test subjects for ecological research.But the glass and steel structure made a pressure cooker. Our humanfoibles boiling to the surface in what some named "The Human Experiment."Now ten years have soothed the searing anger I felt uponcompleting our mission. I can at last recall and assess the controversyand all that occurred in and around our New Age Garden of Eden, aidedby the many people I had interviewed and the records Ihave read, with what approximates objectivity.I want to tell this extraordinary adventure tale of a colorful band of mavericksattempting what many said was impossible to set the record straight.To halt the maelstrom of misinformation that still swells around the projecttoday. Even now, when I open boxes containing books and clothing as I had withme during my sojourn, the smell emanating from thecardboard transports me instantly back inside.So now, let's see if we can make this little thing work, I'm going to takea quick tour inside. So up here is the rainforest area inside the biosphere.Over on the right is the pan across the ocean. Down here,this is through the habitat. This is where we had our rooms, and the kitchen,and all of that. And then on the bottom right, this is what keeps the biospherethermally comfortable. All of these things here are essentiallygiant air-handling units that are keeping the air at the appropriatetemperature and the appropriate humidity.Oxygen Dilemma: It was early April 1992 when I sat at the small oak desk in my bright,comfortable living quarters in Biosphere 2. Mine was like the other sevenbiospherians': split-level, with a small mezzanine where my queen-sizedbed stood. Down a spiral staircase lay my ruffly fifteen by fifteenfoot living room where I sat writing in my journal, as I did everyevening I could summon enough energy. The room was my refuge.From my desk or bed I could look out the huge window over a half acrefarm below. But it was outdoors with a twist. Beyond layoutside-outside. The Arizona desert. The rest of the world.On this evening, a few miles outside my hermetically-sealed home,the Catalina Mountains turned a glorious orange under the setting sun. I hearda soft knock on my door. Taber MacCallum walked in and plopped himself down on the sofa.Taber, a veritable bear of a man only a few months earlier, was now as thinas a rail. Thick brown hair spilled over a prominent brow, under whichshone penetrating green eyes. He was attractive. But it was his mind thatfascinated me, allured me. The son of an American astrophysicist, he wasexceptionally intelligent, thoughtful and kind. Taber was my best friendand my lover. I could read him like an open book.And this evening, he seemed unusually tense."Hi, what's up," I inquired. There was a long silence.Finally he broke the quiet. "I'm getting some strange readings in the lab.""What, the nitrogen generator giving you problems again," I asked."No. Looks like we may be losing oxygen." Taber was the crewmember in charge of the anayltical and other machinery in the lab. We alltrusted him to tell us whether our air was safe to breathe, our food was safe toeat, and our water was safe to drink. We knew from experiments as farback as the days of the test module, a sealed chamber 1/400ththe size of Biosphere 2, that our oxygen and carbon dioxide were locked in a permanentdance. The oxygen level went down in proportion to the amountthe carbon dioxide level went up, and vice versa.Until this day in April, six months into our voluntary enclosure, Taber hadtested the level of oxygen only with the sniffer system, a not terribly accuratesystem. But this time, Taber also ran the oxygen figures from the chromatograph. He wasstunned to find data saying the oxygen level in Biosphere 2 had dropped to 17.4%.He didn't believe it. "No way! The oxygen simply couldn't be that low!"He ran the samples over and over again, and the data were unyielding. Hearrived in the dining room for our morning meeting looking exhausted andpale. The seven of us around the gray granite table all knew by now thatthere was some issue with the oxygen. We braced ourselves to hearhow bad it was. "Our oxygen is down below 17.5%," Taber announced in a flattoneless voice. The table erupted with questions. "What?""How can that be?" "Are you sure?" "How?" "Where did it go?""I have no idea," Taber said. "I didn't trust the instruments at firstmyself. But I've run so many samples, the data have to be right." Theramifications were immense, and they weren't lost on anyone that morning.It wasn't that we risked dying. We could walk out of the air lockers anytime if our environment became unlivable. But how could we?At the outset, we had declared to the media andthe whole world that we would stay inside for two full years.Leaving Biosphere early was out of the question. But if we stayed inside,we would likely be forced to pump in oxygen, which would break our promisethat no material would go in or out of the hermetically-sealed enclosureduring our two-year mission. The media had been hammering us formonths, as for the scientific community. Surely they would both write usoff after discovering this latest flaw in the workings of our biosphere. If thedesign was flawed, perhaps the whole idea that humans could successfully create anartificial biosphere was also flawed. And if that were true, then Ed Bass,the Texan billionaire who'd bankrolled the project, would have wasted his250 million dollars. A quarter of a billion dollars. Perhaps Ed would stop funding us.And what if the precious self-organizing notion that we all shared whereby thebiosphere its overall air, life, water and chemistry would seek its ownequilibrium. And importantly, an equilibrium inhabitable by humans. Well,it was self-organizing, all right. Organizing us right out of the picture.We sat in stunned silence. The news was far worse than we had imagined.I felt a rush as the blood drained from my head down to my feet and mytoes and fingers tingled with adrenaline. My brain was spinning and I heard a voicescreaming at me in my head, "We're screwed! We're screwed!"So. Now for something completely different. This is taking place onone of the crew member's birthday in a rice paddy that we had just harvested.That's Taber on the right, and Ray Wolford, who was our doctor,on the left. It is soft mud. Don't worry, nobody was hurt in the filming of this piece.All righty. Oh no that's not supposed to happen. Hang on. Here we go.It Takes Four Months to Make a Pizza: "Break time!" I yell, the sound echoingacross to the others stooping in the rice paddies. Everyone straightened upin unison and began to wade to the edge of the fields, looking like a flockof heron stalking through the rice in search of food. After hosing thedark green mud from our calves and feet, weall trudged out to the plaza for our morning peanuts and mint tea.It was springtime, the sun was out, and this morning every biospherianwas working feverishly to save our young rice crop from the ravages of an infestationof loompas, moth larvae that can eat every leaf on the plant in only a few days.I had already sprayed a natural insecticide on them, but it wasn't workingand the green half-inch long caterpillars were growing rapidly and beginning to wreak havoc.As the bacterial killer had been ineffective in halting the tiny green armies'rampage, we were picking each insect off one by one. I fedthem to the chickens, who didn't seem impressed.I modeled our agriculture on Chinese farming, and my bookshelf held severaltomes dedicated to its history and techniques. The Chinese long ago devisedsynergistic rice paddy systems similar to the one we were lovingly protecting fromthe little green army of caterpillars. It's a brilliant way to maximize resources.Swimming around the plants were Tilapia fish, which live largely on smallcreatures growing in the paddies that would otherwise attack the rice.The fish also graze azola, a small fern floating thickly on the water. TheTilapia nosed around in the roots for food, thereby aerating the plantswith oxygen, and they added nutrients to the water via their feces, therebyboosting rice production. When we harvested the rice, we also harvested fish dinners.The animals were good for the soul most of the time. One morning I walkedinto the chicken pen and picked up a hen that hadn't laid any eggs.We couldn't afford slackers. I carried the bird into the small butcheringroom and gently placed her on the cutting board, stroking her long neckto soothe her. I hated the next bit, but Roy was filming so I couldn't hesitate.I took a sharp knife, laid it across the animal's neck, took a deep breath and sliced offher head. In an instant, the bird leapt up and off the table and ran out of thebutchering room. I shrieked with surprise, charging around trying to catch theheadless chicken. I finally grabbed the hen and dumped her in a potof boiling water in order to loosen her feathers for plucking. It was like a QuentinTarantino movie, blood squirting from the neck stump. Roychuckled at the black humor. He had captured the scene for posterity.I was finding it harder and harder to butcher the animals, though. Livingon a mostly vegetarian diet, I had lost the enzymes that help digest meat, so I was givingall mine to Taber. I felt even more connected to the darlings once I knew I wouldn'tbe eating them. In March, we harvested the first wheat field. It was a decent harvest,so I made a pizza to celebrate. As I savored it, I considered how it had takenfour whole months to make. We had all participated in the creation of this pizza,either by planting, watering, weeding, or finally harvesting.Never had my connection to my food been so direct or so satisfying.Although I had projected being able to grow only about 80% of our food,we were doing much better than that. We were eating entirely from what we weregrowing, 100% Biosphere 2 grown food. Unfortunately, we accomplished this by eatinga great deal less than we would have liked. We were all losing weight. The guys hadlost, on average, 18% of their weight. Taber had shed almost 60 poundsand was so skinny that I started giving him some of my food. The womenlost about 10%. None of us was in danger of malnutrition, as the diet was complete.We were, however, becoming ever more obsessed with food. After dinner,some of us sat around the cold slab of granite that was our dining table andengaged in a recurring form of therapy: food fantasies. We imaginedand described in exquisite detail a rapturous meal we wished we were eating.Sometimes I could smell a flourless chocolate tort as I brought the emptyfork to my mouth. As I placed it on my tongue I could feel the gooey,creamy consistency and taste the full, rich, pungent dark chocolate. AndI washed it down with an imaginary cappuccino. Or I would sink myteeth into an exceptionally ripe sweet fantasy strawberry, the aromawafting up my nostrils as it came close to my mouth.It sounds masochistic, but we imagined the food so vividly, it was almostas if we had eaten it. Our hunger wasn't only for quantity, but for the delight ofa good meal with a luscious glass of wine. We were hungry for stimuli. Whenwatching a film, I would focus on the eating scenes, forgetting the plot.Taber and I would talk about what was on movie plates and on movieglasses. We took to watching cooking shows on TV. Once, we so wanted to tastethe shrimp and melon balls that a Hong Kong chef was cooking that we phonedand bought every book that he had written, although we couldn'tpossibly use the cookbooks for another eighteen months.Margaret, the CEO, had placed a hot dog stand not far from the biosphereto serve the hundreds of hungry visitors. Sometimes we lined up in the second storywindows of the habitat and took turns peering through binoculars at fat people,for everyone seemed overweight to us then, even the slender people,who were spurting ketchup on sausages and shoveling them into their mouths.We were culinary voyeurs. But despite my hunger, I could not embracethe tradition of eating insects. Mark claimed to have tasted the crickets that werechirping throughout the biosphere. That sounded quite disgusting, and to myEnglish sensibilities, stooping far too low, tantamount to admitting we werescrambling for our survival. Even so, we had numerous discussionsabout whether it would be remotely possible to turn the enormous cockroachpopulation into food. But I'll leave that up to your imagination.That was lady bugs. There were handfuls of ladybugs. Yeah, I've gotone more piece to read, and then you can askme whatever you want. I don't have to answer though, right?Lines Drawn in the Sand: Ten months after closure, the four of "us" would huddleat one end of the dining table for lunch, and the four of "them" wouldeither leave and eat elsewhere, or crowd together at the other end of thetable. Sit-down dinners gave way to people grabbing their foodand running away to their rooms. One afternoon, Taber and I were walkingalong the hallway to the dining room. Gay and Linda werewalking toward us. As we passed them, we hugged the wall and averted our eyes.So did they. That was the way it was for the remaining14 months. We never looked each other in the face again.With nearly palpable hostility hanging in the biosphere like a cloud, Taberand I looked for ways to escape. We watched totally unmemorable TV programs.Sometimes we hiked the 200 feet down the stairs and through the basement tothe beach and sat looking out through the space frame at the stars. We wouldsearch for Mars in the night sky and contemplate how different things mightbe if our biosphere was suddenly transported there and we were lookingnot at a tiny red speck of Mars, but at the bluish dot of our home planet. Perhapson Mars, with the safety of our home at least 48 millionmiles away, we would have been able to pull together.But then again, perhaps not. I wondered if people are really meant to beenclosed in small spaces. Even as large, beautiful, and varied as Biosphere 2.The human species, after all, did not evolve indoors. The enclosed life was oftenone of a sort of monastic contemplation. Not only were we food-limited, andincreasingly oxygen-limited, we were impression-limited. The simplicityof life was at once fiercely liberating and crushingly oppressive.In spite of the controversies and turmoil, my brain was not bombardedwith the millions of stimuli we all experience in modern life. I couldn't distractmy mind by driving into town to see a movie, go to the theater, have a fancydinner, or go dancing. Despite the melodrama, the social spaghetti,as Roy called it, was vastly simplified. I dealt face to face with onlyseven other people, and my interactions with those on the outside were largelyfiltered through Mission Control. I didn't have to deal with themany day to day complexities of the well-oiled outside. Nope.I had to find my entertainment, my satisfaction, from within the 3.15 acresof Biosphere 2, and from within the 1300 cubic centimeters of my brain. I foundthis the most difficult thing about our enclosure, being somewhat used tolooking to the outside for satisfaction, from the age of 18 I had been ridinga wave of constant external stimulation until the day the door on Biosphere 2slammed shut. I had almost no time nor energy for introspection.I had almost never lived alone, been alone, to face myself and my ownangels and demons. Now I was thrust into the position of staring inwards.Thank you.