You may have been watching the spectacular short TV series on Channel 5 presented by Tim Peake entitled ‘Secrets of our Universe’ programmes. This week (3 October 2023) he showed us the Biosphere project in Arizona. What you may not know is that Jane Poynter, 29, an entomologist from Cuckfield took part in the first such project in 1991. And when she emerged she had a very interesting tale to tell, the ‘mission’, on a human level especially, did not go as well as had been hoped.
Biosphere 2, an Earth space station, its massive glass pyramids sit in the Arizona desert set against a stunning landscape. An artificial ecosystem had been created that extended over 2500 acres. Eight scientists - six men and two British women were ‘sealed in’ for two years to simulate the effects of extended space travel and and to study the practicalities of living in a totally artificial environment.
Why so long?
It takes a year to reach to reach Mars by - and then another to return. To make trips worthwhile to the Red Planet, some 34.6 million miles away, and to allow time for experiments and construction projects - missions could last for three years.
The ecosphere included:
A 35 foot deep ‘ocean’ with millions of gallons of sea water.
An 85ft rain forest including a ‘cloud’-topped mountain and 300 species of plant sourced in the Tropics.
A swamp transported from the Florida Everglades.
A desert containing 300 plant species.
A large farm with soil enriched by hitech fertilisers plus animals such as goats, chickens and pigs.
It had a five storey control module with living and working quarters for the Bionauts. These included a kitchen, dining area, recreational centre, library, laboratory and various computer- equipped offices. The eight Bionauts were able to keep in touch with the outside world - they could watch TV, listen to the radio and use phones.
Friction on board
So how did all this work out? Much of the previous experience of confined living had come from psychological studies of scientists overwintering in Antarctic research stations. According to Jane, it was known that living in close proximity and isolation can be a challenge and crews can often split into factions. This project confirmed this theory:
Just 12 days into the mission, Jane was injured in a rice-threshing machine, and had to leave the Biosphere for medical treatment, but was back within seven hours. There were accusations in the papers afterwards that spare parts were smuggled back into the Biosphere when she returned through the airlock.
In November 1992, the hungry Biospherians began eating seed stocks that had not been grown inside Biosphere 2. Poynter advised Chris Helms, PR Director for the enterprise, that this was happening. She was promptly dismissed by Margret Augustine, CEO of Space Biospheres Ventures, and told to come out of the Biosphere.
This order was, however, never carried out. Poynter writes that she simply decided to stay put, correctly reasoning that the order could not be enforced without effectively terminating the project. Despite the disagreements and stresses this experiment, was pursued to the intended finish date very professionally.
According to Jane, people who had been intimate friends had become implacable enemies, barely on speaking terms. Others were anxious to say that the crew continued to work together as a team to achieve the experiment's goals, mindful that any action that harmed Biosphere 2 might compromise their own mental health.
The reduced oxygen and the calorie-restricted, nutrient-dense diet contributed to low morale. One of the groups - the ‘Alling faction’ feared that the ‘Poynter group’ were prepared to go so far as to import food, if it meant making them fitter to carry out research projects. That would have broken the concept of total disconnection from civilisation.
Other issues left crucial questions unresolved. The plant respiration rate was faster than the photosynthesis (possibly in part due to relatively low light penetration through the glazed structure and the fact that Biosphere 2 started with a small but rapidly increasing plant biomass) resulting in a slow decrease of oxygen - which led the scientists gasping for breath. It was decided for the sake of the continuation of the experiment to artificially boost the oxygen into the environment. There were also technical issues in managing carbon dioxide levels.
Jane concluded in her TED presentation: ‘We proved the concept more or less - on the human levels less so.’ On her exit from her glasshouse prison she revelled in being back amongst her friends and family but curiously noticed that 'humans stank' - with the use of perfumes, soap and other toiletries. The other difference was that she did not recognise what had happened to food in the shops in the intervening two years and concluded that we had lost touch with the production and preparation of food.
This was a brave first experiment and the pioneers can be proud of what they accomplished. Subsequent isolation experiments have taken place since in Arizona, and are continuing to this day. Much has been learned and we are now better prepared for man to face ‘the final frontier’.
Jane Poynter is now in demand as a speaker and has addressed groups such as the United Nations Environment Programme, the US Environmental Protection Agency, TEDx, National Space Symposium, NASA, MIT, and Microsoft.
I strongly recommend you watch her compelling account on the 'TED' video below.
Dundee Courier, 26 September 1991
Biosphere 2 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_2#
Jane Poynter Biography https://www.allamericanspeakers.com/celebritytalentbios/Jane+Poynter/384507
Jane Poynter Wikipedia entry - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Poynter
The TED talk by Jane Poynter: https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_poynter_life_in_biosphere_2?language=en
Tim Peake https://timpeake.com
Tim Peake ‘Secrets of our Universe’ Channel 5 - still viewable on catch up TV. the Biosphere episode was shown Tuesday 3 October.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.
Visit Cuckfield Museum, follow the link for details https://cuckfieldmuseum.org.