Biosphere Ii: Science Or Showmanship?

It's a good bet that when God created Biosphere I (Earth, that is), there were no sombreros full of raw vegetables or giant vats of guacamole to feed the assembled onlookers. Nor were Timothy Leary, Steve Guttenberg or "Cheers" stars John Ratzenberger and Woody Harrelson present to lend celebrity cachet. But all those and more--a fire juggler, an Indian chanter and costumed dancers on stilts--were on hand last week to fete the opening, or rather the closing, of Biosphere II, a gigantic terrarium rising Jules Verne-like from the Arizona desert. It was a fitting extravaganza for an audacious project that aims to recreate Earth itself, complete with a desert, rain forest, savanna, ocean and farm, all within 2.75 steel-and-glass enclosed acres. The next morning, as the door was sealed, locking in four men, four women and 3,800 species of plants, animals and insects for two years of isolation, Texas billionaire Ed Bass, the project's chief financier, exhorted the crew to "fly your spaceship well so that all of Planet Earth may fly its spaceship better in the future."

That pretty much sums up the mission of Biosphere II. Its creators, Space Biosphere Ventures Inc., say it will produce insights into Earth's fragile ecosystems and someday serve as a model for colon planets. With its seven separate "biomes," Biosphere II is intended to be completely self-sufficient; inhabitants will produce all their own food and recycle their own air, water and waste, receiving only sunlight, electricity and electronic communications from outside. But critics say the project is more showmanship than science. (To date, the largest enclosed ecosystems have been the size of baseballs, containing only algae and shrimp.) "I don't think it's extremely well designed," says Frank B. Salisbury, a University of Utah plant physiologist who works on NASA's enclosed-systems research. "But gee, they spent one hundred fifty million bucks on it and it was their money, not ours. Let's hope we get something out of it."

For all of the attendant hoopla, much of the project has been shrouded in secrecy during its six years of construction. Biosphere's mastermind, John Allen, a. poet, playwright and metallurgist with a Harvard M.B.A., has spearheaded a number of dubious international ecological projects, including a Sante Fe commune, a concrete-hulled ocean research vessel and an "environmentally friendly" hotel in Katmandu. Some critics accuse him of running a cult, a charge Allen denies. To help with the planning and construction, SBV hired experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Smithsonian Institution and Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens. But of the eight biospherians who will inhabit the terrarium, University of California, Los Angeles, gerontologist Dr. Roy Walford, 67, is the only scientist of any repute. The rest of the team are mostly young neophytes, some of whom have worked on other Allen projects. Each will have private living quarters and free time to read, sunbathe and play musical instruments after their scientific duties. No psychological studies are planned of how they will interact with each other, but the biospherians dismiss suggestions that friction is inevitable. (They are also all unmarried and say their sex lives during the experiment are their own business.)

Biosphere's backers freely admit it is a commercial venture. Project manager Margaret Augustine says that in five to 10 years it could generate valuable air- and water-recycling systems, as well as new materials for pollution-free home and work spaces. But even now, Biosphere II looks more like a theme park than an R&D site: the gift shop, in a converted test module, is crammed full of T shirts, bumper stickers, key chains, playing cards and books touting the virtues of "biospherics." Visitors (some 650,000 to date) pay $9.95 for tours, and will soon be able to peer into the terrarium itself, watching the biospherians at work. Plans call for building "ecologically sensitive" RV parks and an "environmentally correct" golf course on the site-much to the dismay of locals. Says neighbor Tom Norbett: "I'm not sure I want Disneyland in my backyard, even if it does stress ecology."

There are other serious doubts about the project. Some critics fear that with the diverse biomes so close together, the plants and animals will compromise each other if they even survive the two years. And with no controls on the experiments, any results they yield cannot be scientifically validated. But much of that was forgotten in the excitement last week, as speaker after speaker praised Biosphere's aims and stressed how uniquely American the project is. As the biospherians waved goodbye to their families, to be linked only by telephone and TV, it was easy to recall Ratzenberger's last words the night before: "Don't worry, everybody. They can still watch 'Cheers'!"