Sending humans to Mars may be a dream whose time has come. US presidents have talked about it, but private groups seem to dominate the news: Mars One , Inspiration Mars , Explore Mars among them. Today you can apply to become a colonist on Mars or donate to the effort, but twenty years ago, a private group performed an experiment aimed at space colonization. While the facility has morphed into a more traditional research facility, you can still visit it (for a $20 fee) today.
Biosphere 2 outside Tucson, Arizona, turns 20 years old this month. I recently visited the site as a tourist. There is an excellent article about B2 in Desert Exposure. I was struck by how similar the pictures in the article are to my pictures. Obviously we took the same tour.
B2 originated as an attempt to demonstrate how colonists on Mars or the moon might live and that experiment still dominates the tour. The experiment cost tens of millions of dollars and was funded by a wealthy individual (reminds me of SpaceX today). Several communities of plants and animals were transplanted to the huge greenhouse and eight people agreed to live inside for two years. The biosphere was sealed from the outside world, even using a steel liner to isolate it from the ground. Engineering problems were solved, like how to allow the air inside to expand and contract with temperature so the glass greenhouse panels wouldn’t break. The people inside recycled all their air, water, and wastes; grew all their own food; and created a little community.
B2 did not try to construct their structure as a colony on Mars possibly could, or explain how the water, soil, and other contents might arrive on Mars. While matter would not enter or leave, lots of energy had to be provided. Their “self-sustaining world” was sustained by electricity from the outside, and all the pumps, fans, and compressors that electricity ran. Even in sunny Arizona, their farming suffered from low light levels. It makes me think that solar cells on dusty Mars may never provide enough power. Real Mars colonies would surely like to have the (almost mythical) fusion reactors of the future.
The eight person crew toughed it out for the two-year demonstration, surviving better than the animals they brought in with them: Except for insects. Insects did amazingly well, to the crew’s frequent dismay.
There were interesting developments. Oxygen was unexpectedly depleted by the fresh concrete from construction. Concrete doesn’t harden just by drying out. It undergoes complex chemical reactions. As it cured, the concrete tied up oxygen, so in one breach of the “sealed” protocol, oxygen was pumped in so the crew wouldn’t suffocate. In an ironic reflection of current global warming worries, CO2 built up, turning the water acidic.
High CO2 levels are not good for people. At 1% CO2, which you might experience in a poorly ventilated, crowded auditorium, some occupants will feel drowsy. Above 5%, CO2 is toxic (according to InspectAPedia).
Happily, the eight person crew emerged after two years alive. They had lost a great deal of weight due to their limited success at farming and generally were glad to get away from each other. Relationships outside B2 fared no better, and the wealthy supporter soon evicted the original visionaries. Living sealed inside a few acres of habitat with a small group of people may still be the biggest problem for extraterrestrial colonists to solve.
The tour guides still talk mostly about the old experiment, but current research is also on display. Today the University of Arizona, supported by the same, original wealthy individual, uses B2 as an experimental greenhouse. They run experiments that can be done nowhere else (like growing mature cottonwood trees under different levels of CO2) and some that probably could fit in a lab (exposing freshly pulverized rock to various organisms or testing soil sensors).
The university is currently setting up a large-scale experiment: the Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO), designed to study how water, energy, carbon, microbes, and vegetation move through and modify a landscape. For science like this, labs are well-controlled but too small, and the world is big enough but uncontrollable. B2 offers programmable rain, humidity, and temperatures so researchers can perform a study possible nowhere else.
I am humbled to realize how much we still do not know about the world we live in, and encouraged to discover a place where we’re trying to find out. I’m not yet sure what I think about colonizing Mars, and I haven’t applied to go, but space is “the final frontier”.
Learn some ways to eat like a Martian:
practice for Mars on Earth
Banana beer from Born on Mars
And Liz, in Glory on Mars, tries to make bhang, though she doesn’t have all the ingredients.
NASA is trying potatoes.