It’s becoming increasingly clear that sooner or later humanity will have to migrate to other planets in the universe — or face extinction when Earth’s resources run out as they inevitably will.
And experiments are underway in preparation for that eventuality.
One by one, four men and four women wearing dark coveralls stepped up to a lectern to deliver their final remarks.
“I take my last breaths of this atmosphere, knowing that I will take breaths from a different atmosphere from all of you,” said Jane Poynter, one of the crew members.
Then they lined up in front of a velvet rope, waved to the cameras, and stepped through an airlock crafted from submarine bulkheads. The doors were sealed. It was September 26, 1991. The group wouldn’t leave until 1993.
The airtight facility they entered, called Biosphere 2, is dug into a hillside of the Sonoran Desert near Oracle, Arizona. It’s a geodesic cocoon made of 6,500 triangular glass panes, and it looks something like a cross between a brilliant jewel and a sprawling terrarium. Inside are acres of lush green plants, millions of cubic feet of air, and an undulating 675,000-gallon saltwater ocean.
Poynter was walking into the largest, longest-running space colony simulation ever built. It would not only pioneer a system to regenerate all the food, air, and water needed to survive on Mars but also test the crew’s physical and mental limits. Poynter would also face a daunting emotional trial with another crew member, Taber MacCallum: a relationship they’d hidden for years from public view.
“It was an incredibly audacious and, in so many ways, incredibly successful attempt at building a prototype space base,” Poynter, who now co-runs the high-altitude-balloon company World View, told me nearly 25 years after she emerged from the biosphere.
People no longer get sealed inside Biosphere 2. Today it’s a scientific research facility run by the University of Arizona. Yet the original mission of the biospherians has taken on new relevance as threatening changes to the Earth’s climate, and ultimately to humanity, take alarming shape.
The outlook has grown so gloomy that, in the eyes of some, the idea of colonizing Mars as a backup drive for the human race now seems appropriate, if not inevitable. Joining Stephen Hawking and others is billionaire tech mogul Elon Musk, whose grand ambitions have made talk of inhabiting the red planet using his aerospace company, SpaceX, part of casual conversation.
The ultimate goal of his entrepreneurial existence, Musk has said, is to build a permanent, self-sustaining city of 1 million people on Mars — complete with pizza joints — as a sort of insurance policy against all-out catastrophe on Earth.
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