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Eight go mad in Arizona: how a lockdown experiment went horribly wrong

Eight go mad in Arizona: how a lockdown experiment went horribly wrong

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In the 1990s, a troupe of hippies spent two years sealed inside a dome called Biosphere 2. They ended up starving and gasping for breath. As a new documentary Spaceship Earth tells their story, we meet the ‘biospherians’

Steve Rose @steverose7

Mon 13 Jul 2020 01.00 EDTLast modified on Mon 13 Jul 2020 07.52 EDT

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the first ‘biospherians’ prepare to enter their enclosed environment.
 the first ‘biospherians’ prepare to enter their enclosed environment. Photograph: Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

It sounds like a sci-fi movie, or the weirdest series of Big Brother ever. Eight volunteers wearing snazzy red jumpsuits seal themselves into a hi-tech glasshouse that’s meant to perfectly replicate Earth’s ecosystems. They end up starving, gasping for air and at each other’s throats – while the world’s media looks on.

But the Biosphere 2 experiment really did happen. Running from 1991 to 1993, it is remembered as a failure, if it is remembered at all – a hubristic, pseudo-scientific experiment that was never going to accomplish its mission. However, as the new documentary Spaceship Earth shows, the escapade is a cautionary tale, now that the outside world – Biosphere 1, if you prefer – is itself coming to resemble an apocalyptic sci-fi world. Looking back, it’s amazing that Biosphere 2 even happened at all, not least because the people behind it started out as a hippy theatre group.

“Just the fact that the same number of people came out as went in is a triumph,” says Mark Nelson, one of the original eight “biospherians”. Far from a failure, he regards Biosphere 2 as an unsung achievement in human exploration, as do many others. “I like to say we built it not because we had the answers. We built it to find out what we didn’t know.”

Ziggurat … the futuristic Biosphere 2 complex in the Arizona desert.
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