Learning from Failure: Biosphere 2
by Sharon Cornet
Ashford University
Science and Culture – LIB 332
Professor: Jennifer Cramer

February 1, 2010

Learning from Failure: Biosphere 2

Failure is a hard concept for most people to deal with, but is all too common in science, especially when it comes to experiments.  According to Erickson (2005), “Experiments are a key component of the formal scientific method … [and] parameters contained in the hypothesis can be controlled and manipulated such that measurable results can be collected” (p. 30).  Scientists used this method of experimentation to see if a colony of eight people (four men and four women) could live and sustain themselves with food, water, air, waste products, and full-time living quarters, in an enclosed and controlled environment; a miniature “biosphere” allegedly completely separate from the harsh conditions that exist on the planet of Mars.  One of the questions that this author, and many others have posited, is could an experimental model of a biosphere be successful here on earth, when earth itself is a biosphere and the planetary conditions different than that of Mars?  The experiment of Biosphere 2 was largely considered a failure by many scientists and lay people alike; however, there was some useful knowledge that came out of Biosphere 2, which has enriched our knowledge of not only what to do, but more importantly, what not to do next time around.

So what is a biosphere exactly?  The definition of biosphere is “all of the ecosystems of the earth” (http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Biosphere).  Additionally, an ecosystem is “A system that includes all living organisms (biotic factors) in an area as well as its physical environment (abiotic factors) functioning together as a unit” (http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Ecosystem).  One of the problems that this author, as a writer of how-to booklets about passive solar homes/energy, noticed right away is the vast amount of solar glazing (glass) on the exterior of the structure of Biosphere 2, which is especially important regarding overheating due to being located in the arid desert of Oracle, Arizona.  This 3.14 acres sized greenhouse-like facility has several biomes or ecosystems contained within it, including an “ocean with coral reef, mangrove wetlands, tropical rainforest, savannah grassland, [and] fog desert” (University of Arizona, n.d., Biosphere 2 facility section). 

            This author spoke several years ago with a colleague, Steve Cook, who works at the Energy Center at the University of Texas at El Paso.  Cook had visited and toured Biosphere 2 and recognized that so much heat was generated inside that the engineers actually had alter the design to use vast amounts of water as a heat sink, and then pump it outside of the Biosphere 2 structure to allow the heat to dissipate before circulating the water back inside.  This means that this “completely enclosed” type of unit was anything but self-sustaining, and required external sources of energy input or output in order to maintain comfortable temperatures inside.  Without this life-saving feature the artificially created ecosystems within Biosphere 2 would have died within a matter of days. 

            This one feature of sunlight-to-glass ratio alone sets Biosphere 2 apart from being an adequate model for sustaining life on Mars.  The independence of such a project from earth’s climate would have to be designed so that the entire earth-like Biosphere 2 was enclosed within a much larger, artificially created environment like that on Mars.  The spectrum, intensity, and Mars-day duration of the sunlight entering the glass on Biosphere 2 would need to be equivalent to that on Mars.  The atmosphere around the facility would also need to be artificially created to mimic that on Mars, as well as the temperature and other climatic features, including the super-strength winds and brown-out (or red) conditions from dust storms on Mars.   All of these things would severely affect how life could, or couldn’t, exist in Biosphere 2, in extraplanetary conditions.

            This seems like it is an obvious solution to a single problem that deeply affects every other aspect of life within Biosphere 2, but this failure was not as much in the scientific design of the project, as it was in the cultural mindsets associated with those who did the designing in the first place.  Humans are inevitably enculturated (learned behavior) within their own unique societies, and tend to be ethnocentric (seeing and judging the world through their own cultural lens), which has caused a vast amount of problems and failures when one culture has infiltrated another culture – such as when Europeans came to the Americas, killing off and converting Native American Indians – to the point that wars have ensued over simple cultural clashes.  Even when people have a more humanitarian approach, ethnocentrism has gotten in the way.   An example is given in a research paper titled Responsibility to Humanity, by (this author) Cornet (2010), when “people in India have been given wheat in the past, which caused their agricultural market to fall (http://www.heritage.org/research/TradeandForeignAid/bg665.cfm).  Similar instances in other countries have also occurred with other foods, and it is like sending pork as food relief to Jews or Muslims, who cannot and do not eat such things based on religious beliefs” (para. 3).  So it stands to reason that when designing a model for living in earth-like conditions on another world, the scientist must alter his/her perception to another place entirely so that the context is applicable.  Mars’ conditions are not to be implemented with earth-centric bias! 

            Scientists and engineers were so concerned with what was supposed to go on inside Biosphere 2 that they ignored what was going on outside of it, in earth’s environment.  Even earth is not a closed system as cosmic rays, solar flares, gamma ray bursts, atmospheric layers such as the troposphere, the Van Allen belt, the ozone layer, and so on, all affect what life within the biosphere of earth can survive or thrive.  The plants and trees, animals and water sources are all interconnected and affect the quality of the atmosphere, as do the pollutants from volcanism and other natural or manmade sources, to name a few.  What is in the air affects the water, glaciers, and carbon that are in the environment (utilized in carbon dating methods).  One of the problems that scientists had to deal with in Biosphere 2 is that of oxygen depletion, which ultimately affected the crew, as well as causing extinction of a higher number of plants than expected (http://biology.kenyon.edu/slonc/bio3/2000projects/carroll_d_walker_e/whatwentwrong.html).

            Jane Poynter, who was one of the eight scientists who lived in Biosphere 2 for two years, had some things to say about her experience and the failures of the experiment.  In a TED production (2009), Poynter said that the purpose of Biosphere 2 to construct a biological ecosphere that was an imitation or model of what is found on earth (video).  The potential for using this technology on Mars in the future was the reason for creating a model colony here where people could survive long term.   Poynter had previously taken a visit to the Eritrea desert where she witnessed what she called an “industrial ecosystem,” where the locals were utilizing the waste (normally a major pollutant) of shrimp farms and used it to grow mangroves and a salt-water crop of oil seed (TED, video).   The mangroves provided food, wood, and honey, plus leaves for the animals to eat to produce milk and meat.  Poynter concluded that technology has given us the “ability to look at the world from the outside” and that we should look at the biosphere of earth and “try to understand where we are in its context, and how we choose to interact with it” (TED, video). 

Poynter thought “the Yogis had it right,” that humans all need to “take a breath,” and consider what breathing means.  Being able to breath is very important to life on this planet, and elsewhere (TED, video).  Jane Poynter had more to say, however, because there is more to the story than just the air consisting of carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen and trace gases.  She said that Biosphere 2 had great beauty above ground with plants, trees, a sea, desert, and so on, but “underneath we had the technosphere” (pumps, valves, tanks, etc.) which helped them grow what was “essentially an organic farm” and kept the system running (TED, video).  Poynter’s experience was that they were “breathing a completely different atmosphere” but that “oxygen was going down faster than it was going up,” which was completely unexpected.  They tried different things to reverse the problem; they stopped doing activities such as tilling, which normally produced greenhouse gases.  She said, “we lost seven tons of oxygen and we had no clue where it was” because it went from “21% down to 14.2%” resulting in “dragging ourselves around… [and problems with] sleep apnea” (TED, video). The oxygen was finally discovered inside of the concrete, and there was “too much carbon in the soil” from compost (TED, video). 

            Cultural changes had also occurred within Poynter.  She noticed that after being in Biosphere 2 for two years, that when they came out people stunk; they smelled like deodorants, perfume, hairspray, and other commercial items, which American culture uses on their bodies regularly without thinking much about it (TED, video).  Another one of the cultural problems she had forgotten about was where her food came from on the outside, because all the food in Biosphere 2 had been grown by the crew.  Reading food labels with words she didn’t recognize became a new pastime for her (TED, video). Ultimately, Poynter insisted, she had impact on Biosphere 2, and it also had an impact on her (TED, video).  This is akin to Actor-Network Theory (ANT) that Erickson (2005) discusses as the “relationships between humans and non-humans” and that it “argues strongly that ‘technology’ and ‘science’ are inextricably linked” (p. 82). 

            Obviously there is much to learn from both the interactions and problems that occurred within Biosphere 2.  Roy Walford (2007, last para.) closed his article on the hidden serendipity of Biosphere 2 by saying:

Biosphere 2 was originally designed to be a prototype ecological system in all its (bio)complexity, and it may still serve as a harbinger of things to come. Columbia University now runs the $150-million structure along the path of traditional, analytic science. What will come from that style of management of such an entity as Biosphere 2 has yet to be determined. My only safe prediction is that Biosphere 2 will have many lives. The eight people who dwelt inside, myself included, came to regard her as "the ninth Biospherian:" That being so, we took good care of her. That's what we need to do with Earth.


Walden’s remarks, as well as all of the problems within the Biosphere 2 experiment, are a reminder that there are indeed lessons that can be learned from utter failures, because then, at least, no one has ultimately failed, but discovered new ways, new processes, and new methods for trying again.  This is the heart of science, where when an experiment fails, or a hypothesis is falsified, the scientists work at it harder, longer, and with more diligence to find whatever it is they are looking for.  Some call this set of failures “progress” although it tends to come when the solutions to those failures finally are found.  The experiment of Biosphere 2 was largely considered a failure by many scientists and lay people alike; however, there was some useful knowledge that came out of Biosphere 2, which has enriched our knowledge of not only what to do, but more importantly, what not to do next time around.  So far no one has built another biosphere experiment that matches the immensity of effort and funds that Biosphere 2 engulfed.  However, current plans underway by NASA include the retiring of the Space Shuttle this year (which may fly until as late as 2015) in favor of other rocket types for space travel.  Projected colonization of the moon, since water has been discovered in the soil of one of the craters, will be underway by 2020.  We can hope that what was learned from the failures of Biosphere 2 will shed light on how to solve potential problems for future moon colonies.


Cornet, Sharon. (2010). Responsibility to Humanity. Retrieved on January 29, 2010, from

Erickson, M. (2005). Science, culture and society: Understanding science in the 21st century.
           Malden: Wiley.

TED. (June, 2009). Jane Poynter: Life in Biosphere 2, video. Retrieved January 28, 2010, from

University of Arizona. (n.d.). Where Science Lives: Biosphere 2, Fast Facts: Stats on the
. Retrieved January 29, 2010, from http://www.b2science.org/b2/about-fact.html

Walford, Roy L. (2002). Biosphere 2 as voyage of discovery: The serendipity from  
    inside. Bioscience, 52(3), 259-263.   Retrieved January 29, 2010, from Research Library.
    (Document ID: 110641876).


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