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de Vos: Martians building walls

Jon DeVos

Jon DeVos

Election results have quickened the nation’s interest in Martian emigration, Canada being too close. Mars is a mere eight-month flight and already several moneyed interests are developing plans to get there. Passengers can entertain themselves with the seven trillion possible combinations of Klondike solitaire.

Four luxuries humans enjoy are air, water, food and heat, items not naturally-occurring in outer space. What to do?

Back in 1961, the Moscow Institute for Biomedical Problems tossed Evgenii Shepelev into a big steel barrel along with eight buckets of green algae and sealed the lid air-tight. They were betting the algae would produce enough oxygen for Evgenii to survive for a while. He made it 24 hours before noxious fumes made them drag the sad sack out of his malodorous coffin. The experiment verified two things: a closed system might actually work and it’s best to stay out of Russia.

Building on this small step 30 years later in 1991, Texas oil billionaire, Ed Bass, leaned next to the horns on his Caddy and signed a 200 million dollar check to pay for Biosphere 2, a sealed universe and a model for interplanetary colonization. It was an immense closed ecology with 3.14 acres under roof, located in Oracle, Arizona, 30 miles north of Tucson. The first mission would host eight humans for two years with no outside input or interference.

Biosphere 2 housed living and cooking quarters, a rainforest, a million-gallon saltwater ocean, white, sandy beaches, mangrove wetlands, savannah grasslands, a fog desert and 27,000 square feet of agricultural area. Initially, this earthbound spaceship hosted 3,800 species of plants, animals and insects.

Including four men and four women, hermetically-sealed together in a tiny slice of climate-controlled boredom for two years? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, practically everything. The biosphere quickly developed an inexplicable shortage of oxygen, along with heavily polluted water from the overly-rich soil. The number and types of vegetation had been carefully chosen and calculated to ensure an adequate supply of oxygen, but nonetheless, levels quickly dropped by a third to the equivalent of living above 13,000 feet. Later forensics determined that the shortage was caused by the huge amounts of curing cement in the glass and concrete structure. The calcium released was sequestering both oxygen and carbon dioxide into calcium carbonate. Fresh air from outside was discretely added at night but even this proved inadequate and later pure oxygen had to be piped in, only one of several compromises to their mission that exposed them to a great deal of unwanted attention and scientific ridicule.

It was a haphazard experiment with unclear goals and uncertain leadership. Outside, administrators were squabbling about control and direction of the project. Inside, the Biospherians were squabbling about who was in charge and who slept where.

The scientists were lousy farmers, the oxygen was too low, and the soil too rich, all factors leading to the demise of three-quarters of the resident species including all the pollinators, abetting the dominance of ants and roaches.

The Biospherians were stunned by how hard farming was. Producing all their own food proved to be daunting; they were constantly hungry. The chickens, designed to produce endless eggs, went into the stewpot. Resentful of the grain eaten by the hogs, they dispatched and ate them too. Finally they ground and ate all their crop seeds.

They were reduced to a skimpy vegetarian diet while drinking smelly water with scant air to breathe, all contributing to their devolution into venom-spewing factions who kept no daily log, performed no experiments, produced no useful results and increasingly became the brunt of media jokes and the laughingstock of their peers.

Bass abandoned his dream when sleep turned fitful. It’s now owned by the University of Arizona who run it as a tourist attraction and conference center. A hard-to-believe video is found at https://vimeo.com/122581165

You could hide out there for the next four years.