In the movies, small self-contained living spaces tend to be comfortable and easily maintained. The people sharing the space, whether it’s deep under the ocean, floating in space or on another planet, all get along pretty well and there’s never really much tension. Balancing oxygen and carbon dioxide? No problem. Producing enough food to eat well? Not only is that not a problem, but there are magical devices that let you enjoy just about anything you can imagine. But in real life, what would it be like to be locked in a confined space for years on end, hoping that it really is fully self-sustaining?
Before we head into the future, though, the fascinating documentary film Spaceship Earth begins in the past. The center of the swingin’ 60’s hippie vibe in San Francisco. A brilliant and charismatic man named John Allen founded a performing arts group known as The Theater of All Possibilities. His vision was far greater than loose-limbed dancers on a stage, however, and soon the group was off to New Mexico to build the commune Synergia Ranch. Without any significant construction experience, they built a working ranch from the dirt upward, including a massive geodesic dome inspired by ecologist and inventor Buckminster Fuller.
That built, the group migrated to Oakland (across the Bay from San Francisco) to build a research ship that they called the R/V Heraclitus. Amazingly, it floated and let the group explore the world as they studied world ecologies and biomes. Simultaneously, global warming and impending ecological disaster were becoming a central conversation and Allen started to wonder about that too. If they could create these self-sustaining settlements like Synergia Ranch, could the group build and run a space station?
Going off planet would be prohibitively expensive, but Allen connected with ultra-rich oil heir Edward Bass and realized he now had access to millions. $150 million, to be exact. Bass underwrote the creation of the three acre Biosphere 2, a massive and beautiful self-contained structure designed to allow research into future habitats. The areas within the sweeping glass and steel walls represented a rich ocean reef, a small rain forest, a desert and much more. Scientists brought on board became part of Allen’s group of followers, including botanist Tony Burgess, chief engineer Freddy Dempster, documentary filmmaker Kathelin Gray, botanist Linda Leigh, ecologist Mark Nelson and conservationist Sally Silverstone.
On September 26, 1991 four men and four women were locked into Biosphere 2, committed to spending two years, never stepping foot outside, never receiving any food, clothes or other goods from the outside world. Exactly as if they were floating in a space station far above the Earth. A brilliant project and remarkable in its execution, as Spaceship Earth highlights with quite a bit of original footage from the project. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the world was entranced by this crazy adventure, this level of hubris, this “science” experiment without the participation of any major scientific institution or university research team.
The film Spaceship Earth is about the journey that led to the creation of Biosphere 2 and how the project proceeded during its two year stint. Spoiler alert: They stayed in for two years exactly! But Biosphere 2 was arguably more of a failure than a success, as the film highlights. Sneaky tricks and undocumented equipment snuck in to address anticipated engineering failures. A catastrophic oxygen/carbon dioxide imbalance that kicked their butts for a few months. Plants dying in the various biomes. A horrible injury that one of the participants suffered, with treatment beyond the capabilities of the in-sphere doctor. Suffice to say, things didn’t quite go as planned. So was it all a scam or con? The reaction of scientists and the world media became entirely predictable as things slowly fell apart.
Director Matt Wolf delivers a surprisingly compelling film about the Biosphere 2 project and its creators, The Theater of All Possibility and its charismatic leader John Allen. At times it absolutely feels like the story of a cult and there are moments where you’ll cringe at the sheer hubris of it all.
There are also pacing issues with the film; it takes a mighty long time to get to the Biosphere project itself. Once the team enter in the Biosphere, the footage really lacked any sort of timestamp or other temporal information. When something happens (like them running low on oxygen or Poynter’s hand injury) there’s no indication of whether it occured one week or 75 weeks after the door was originally sealed.
Nonetheless, Spaceship Earth is an astonishing story and a documentary well worth watching. You’ll be amazed, you’ll be skeptical, you’ll yell at the screen at least once and you might ultimately reject the entire Biosphere 2 experiment as a marketing scam. If you’re near Tucson, Arizona, you can still head up and visit the Biosphere 2 facility too, and if you’re near Roses, Spain, you can check out the R/V Heraclitus, where it’s currently in drydock being rebuilt for future research adventures.
A Dad At The Movies Note: This is a great film to watch with your children and could easily inspire them to try creating their own tiny, self-sustained living situation. It also can initiate conversation about how science works and what comprises good science. Most of all, it will definitely spark their imaginations as they realize what it would be like to be locked into a single building for two years!