Biosphere 2 was an attempt at creating a sealed-off, self-sustaining ecosystem of the kind astronauts would need for Moon or Mars bases, or for extremely long trips into deep space. The name implies that the Earth itself is Biosphere 1.

The $200 million venture was mostly funded by a Texas oil billionaire. With a lot of TV cameras aimed at them, the first crew was sealed up in 1991, but oxygen levels plummeted, crops failed, the isolated crew grew testy and weak, and no animals survived except abundant ants and cockroaches. It wasn’t long before outside food and fresh oxygen were quietly brought in.

After a flurry of mission changes and lawsuits, the complex just north of Tucson is now up for sale:

“This is not all about the highest bidder,” [general manager of company that owns Biosphere 2] said. “All things being equal, we’d certainly like to see an appropriate reuse of the Biosphere and associated buildings, but ultimately, it comes down to what the market will bear.”

I gather that some good science came out of Biosphere 2, and its certainly better to fail in Southern Arizona than halfway to Alpha Centauri. Still, Biosphere 2 may be best remembered as an especially bizarre example of America’s (and The American West’s) doomed utopianism.

It’s also a dramatic example of something I’ve mentioned before — the intimate and often troubling relationship between American space science and the mass media. I’ll do some exploring of that long history in future entries of the Monochord.