'Planet in a bottle' ended in acrimony, controversy and high drama

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The Independent Online

The controversial and costly Biosphere 2 project was the last serious attempt to lock people away in a sealed environment to simulate the claustrophobic conditions of a space base on a distant planet.

The controversial and costly Biosphere 2 project was the last serious attempt to lock people away in a sealed environment to simulate the claustrophobic conditions of a space base on a distant planet.

This mission took place in a giant glasshouse in the middle of the Arizona desert. It began in September 1991 and finished two years later in controversy.

Biosphere 2 not only resembled London's Millennium Dome in shape, it was beset by almost as many problems.

Eight scientists, including two Britons, entered the giant greenhouse. They lived among replica ecosystems: a cloud forest, savannah grassland, a desert, ocean, and marshes.

They were supposed to be totally self-sufficient, living off plants they grew and animals they reared and breathing the air recycled naturally by plants they grew. Contact with the outside world was limited to a few phone calls each week.

The Biospherians, four men and four women, were aged from 29 to 69. They lived together in the closed ecological system 35 miles north of Tucson, built at a cost of £100m.

The project aimed to produce a sustainable environment that would last the entire century. It failed and its owners, Space Biospheres Ventures, were accused of running a "planet in a bottle" that was short on scientific merit and little more than a tourist attraction.

At the height of the controversy, in February 1993, the 10-strong scientific advisory team hired by the projects financier, Ed Bass - a billionaire recluse - mysteriously resigned.

Claims that the project lacked credibility were dismissed by officials as stemming from infighting between the scientists steering the project.

Biospherians were allowed sexual relations as long as they did not result in pregnancy.

At the end of the two years, sparks began to fly when two of the original members, Abigail Alling and Mark van Thillo, a Belgian scientist, were accused of allegedly sabotaging the glass and steel dome.

Ms Alling went into hiding leaving her mother, Gail, to claim that she had been the victim of mind control. "The people who have all been kicked out are members of a cult,'' she claimed.

Two other Biospherians, including a British scientist, Jayne Poynter, sued for back pay and a bonus of around £7,000, and Mr Bass sent in federal marshals to seize the property. The original aims of the project were abandoned in 1994 and it has since become a tourist attraction.

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