Biosphere 2 embarks today on what its operators hope will be the start of 98 years of continuous habitation in the domed ecological laboratory
and the recovery of its image as serious science.
Nearly six months after the first eight-member crew ended a two-year stay inside the lab, the project has been redesigned.
Now, a crew of five men and two women will rotate in and out of the three-acre glass-and-steel bubble and its 10 apartments. The private, for-profit project is supposed to run like a remote research station.
Space Biospheres Ventures, based here 35 miles northeast of Tucson, operates the $150-million experiment paid for largely by Texas billionaire Edward Bass.
It was designed to last 100 years as a self-sustaining laboratory replicating Earth's environment with a rain forest, ocean, savannah, desert-turned-chaparral, marsh and farm.
Before, the chief goals were developing technology for an Earth-like environment in space and finding ways to solve Earth's ecological problems. Now, technology for Earth is primary.
Norberto Alvarez-Romo, the company's vice president in charge of mission control, compared the first two years to "a shakedown cruise away from a port."
He'll be in Biosphere 2 for four months working on paperless communication systems, joining six others who will stay for various shifts of 10 months to more than a year.
When Alvarez-Romo leaves, he'll be replaced by independent scientists working on other projects for up to two months. Later others, including teachers, will be allowed in for short stays.
After the project began Sept. 26, 1991, Biosphere 2 lost credibility with the public and the scientific community because of various mishaps.
Claims about its self-sufficiency were deflated as crops failed and food and oxygen were brought in to sustain the crew.
One crew member went out for finger surgery, and prominent scientists on its advisory panel quit.
Since the first crew left Sept. 26, several mechanical systems have been improved.
Among other things, high-pressure sodium lamps were installed over the farm to boost winter crop yield and 40 geckos and 50 toads were brought in to eat the cockroaches.