If you thought sitting around your apartment for two months was an ordeal, try sealing yourself indoors for two years, without even being able to leave for food because you’re supposed to be growing all of your own. That was precisely what eight men and women set out to do in 1991, when they entered Biosphere 2. The futuristic greenhouse was built across three acres of the Arizona desert by an ambitious and eccentric collective of dreamers who fell somewhere between a hippie commune and a Martian colony.
Matt Wolf’s new documentary Spaceship Earth, now streaming online, follows the biospherians, dressed in Rajneeshee-esque red suits, from their beginnings as an experimental theater company led by charismatic guru John “Johnny Dolphin” Allen, to the implosion of their mission at the hands of a money man named Steve Bannon. Yes, that Steve Bannon. Clocking in at a little under two hours, it covers a lot of ground about this odd experiment in self-sufficiency, meant as a prelude to space colonization. But here, courtesy of Rebecca Reider’s excellent history Dreaming the Biosphere, are some fun facts the film didn’t manage to dig into.
1. Pauly Shore’s sendup of the experiment has a 4 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Bio-Dome starred Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin as a sort of Dumb and Dumber who end up trapped in a Biosphere 2-type complex with six exasperated scientists. Sample scene: Shore’s character does yoga to the tune of Faith No More’s “We Care a Lot” while his love interest engages in innuendo about one of the sustainably grown carrots.
2. The biospherians planted hallucinogens.
Needless to say, Pauly Shore is psyched about the weed plants growing in Bio-Dome. It’s unclear whether the biospherians went there, but they did grow ayahuasca in Biosphere 2.
3. William S. Burroughs was responsible for the bush babies.
The Beat writer fell in love with lemurs while traveling South America and told John Allen they’d make a nice addition; they were a little too large, however, so Allen settled for galagos, the impish primates also known as bush babies.
4. Timothy Leary and Woody Harrelson were among the VIPs at the launch party.
The psychedelic guru and the weed-loving actor were among the 2,000 guests who partied on the lawn, under fireworks, the night before the biospherians were sealed in.
5. The rift among the biospherians got pretty ugly.
By the end of the first year, the biospherians had divided into two factions of four, one of them loyal to John Allen and the other having lost faith in his leadership. The rift between the groups grew so deep that they were barely on speaking terms, and at one two biospherians spat in a colleague’s face. Another biospherian wrote: “This is the only situation I have ever been in that would drive me to drink, except there is no drink in here.”
6. The biospherians sometimes ran around naked.
Roy, the dietician, liked to “go native” and at one point convinced his colleagues to prance around the rainforest in the nude, covered in body paint. On another occasion, they created a mural of a vehicle by pressing their painted bodies against the glass walls. Because the wheels were made up of butt prints, the work was called “The Butt-Wheeled Wagon of Biosphere 2.”
7. Some saw John Allen as a tyrant.
As one biospherian put it: “A couple of us had a feeling of John as the Anti-Christ, who was coming back to destroy what he had created.” Staff members were routinely fired and unfired, and in a secret memo, one of them accused John and Margret of “explosive outbursts of rage; inappropriate argumentation and tirades against staff, professional associates, even occasionally journalists; erratic and arbitrary decision making; inability to tolerate a contrary opinion much less criticism.”
8. Coffee was a problem.
The rainforest’s coffee trees yielded so little (one cup per person every two to three weeks) that at some point at least one biospherian resorted to trying to eat leftover grounds.
9. There could have been a Biosphere 2 casino.
Having sunk $200 million into Biosphere 2, the project’s wealthy funder, Ed Bass, tapped young investment banker Steve Bannon to right the ship. Bannon aimed to create “Disney-type control of its franchise strategy.” At one point, he and the developer of the Luxor casino discussed building a “Biosphere 3” casino and resort in Las Vegas.
10. After Steve Bannon’s hostile takeover, he initiated a ritual cleansing.
After dismissing the project’s leaders, purging the ranks of their loyalists, and even destroying a sweat lodge on the property, Bannon asked a staff scientist with Cherokee blood to ceremonially cleanse Biosphere 2 of any bad spirits. It took six hours to purify the space with burning sage.
11. A second mission failed because of laughing gas.
After the first two-year mission was completed, a new crew entered Biosphere 2. But after six months, they grew concerned that nitrous oxides levels exceeded government safety limits. Apparently Biosphere 2’s glass walls prevented a sufficient amount of UV light from breaking down the laughing gas. In September of 1994, the second crew left and Biosphere 2 was never inhabited again