Biosphere 2 Revisited


By Sarah Phelan
Former Biosphere 2 crew member Jane Poynter speaks with a endearing British accent, says “bloody” when she gets excited and believes the two-year-and twenty-minute-long project of which she was part, is “one of the most publicly misunderstood and undervalued projects” of the 20th century.”

Or 21st century, given that the impact of the project—a mini-version of Biosphere 1, or Planet Earth, involving four men and four women isolated in a three-acre glass and steel structure near Tucson—continues to elude people to this very day.

All of which add up to a whole bunch of reasons for heading out to Books Inc, 301 Castro Street, Mountain View at 7:30 pm October 13 or to Cody’s, 1730 4th Street, Berkeley, at 7 pm on October 14 to hear Poynter share what it was like on the inside, when she reads from her new book, The Human Experiment” Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2.

Poynter, who prepared for this two-year long stint by living in the Australian outback for six months and then on a research boat on the open seas, says Biosphere 2 was a seminal experience in which she quickly realized what is true for all of us, (but less obvious when your biosphere happens to be Planet Earth):

“Everything that I did daily affected my life support system, and vice versa. It made me realize how disconnected we are here in Biosphere 1, where technology keeps us comfortable and separate from the ravages of nature. In Biosphere 2, that separateness was broken down. I realized I was a cog in the biospheric wheel.”

One of her first priorities on remerging back into the regular world was to put her energies into a project that was big and positive, recalls Poynter of her decision, along with her crewmember/boyfriend and now husband, to develop an aerospace company.

“I’d done some reading and learned that some people who’ve been in isolation, like in Antarctica, commit suicide upon reentry, because they’ve had this seminal experience that no one else can understand and they’re also left with a ‘Now what?’ feeling,” she explains.

Faced with the specter of global warming, Poynter says it’s “very tragic that Biosphere 2 has been sitting empty without a mission for two years.” She now has fingers crossed that it will soon resume its role as effective research tool in the global climate arena.
As for why she decided to write her book now, Poynter says that for ten years her thoughts and experiences have been stewing inside.
“I wanted to put it all behind me, but when now I see misinformation about the project, out of its historic context. It irritated me. I want people to know that it involved an enormous amount of effort and intellectual prowess. It was a huge undertaking.”
It also led to a split in the crew, an event that, in hindsight, says Poynter, was predictable.
“One of the things that’s been shown to occur when people are in isolation and in small groups is that they split into factions. The folks at NASA say we were a textbook case. After a while, you run out of psychological energy and your inner values come to the surface.”

Those friendship rifts profoundly influenced how she runs her company in the present.
‘Taber, my husband, and I made a vow to make sure that the people we worked with got their fundamental needs met.”

As for comments that Biosphere 2 was Reality TV, before reality TV even existed, Poynter says, “On the surface, we were like Survivor, I guess, but we put hats over the camera lenses, we objected to having our private lives filmed, and we to some degree we were selected to get along with each other. In Reality TV, psychologists select people who won’t get along.”

As for the broken friendships she endured as a result of being on the inside of Biosphere 2, Poynter says she interviewed the crewmembers involved for the book and tried to be “very balanced” about what went down.

“I had a story, there were certain truths to be told, we didn’t all come out smelling like roses.”

As for the future, Poynter believes that Biosphere 2 “came bloody close to recreating Planet Earth. We showed it’s possible.”

She also believes that scaled-down versions will play a role in space exploration in centuries to come.

“It’s not necessarily about human destiny, but about life in general. Life sees a vacuum. Take Planet Mars. Maybe it once had life. Who knows? But now it’s waiting for more life to go fill it. Some people believe that it’s statistically likely that we’re going to destroy ourselves. But it’s probably a good idea to have back-up plan. Great things were learned from Biosphere 2. I really do hope it gets a third chance.”