Chapter One Oxygen Dilemna
It was early April 1992, and I sat at the small oak desk in my bright, comfortable living quarters in Biosphere 2. Mine was like the other seven biospherians’—split-level with a small mezzanine where my queen-size bed stood. Down a spiral staircase lay my roughly fifteen-by-fifteen-foot living room where I sat writing in my journal, as I did every evening I could summon enough energy. The room was my refuge.
Behind me sat a teal-colored sofa and chair, and a small oak entertainment center that held a television and tape player, which was filling the room with Keith Jarret’s piano music. To my right, a window—several panes of heavy glass held in place by white steel struts—filled almost the entire wall from the floor to the ceiling. My view outside our Biosphere was always crisscrossed with white steel struts, the bones that supported the glass skin covering most of our world.
From my desk or bed, I could look out the huge window over our half-acre farm below. But it was outdoors with a twist. Beyond lay outside outside. The Arizona desert. The rest of the world. On this evening, a few miles outside my hermetically sealed home, the Catalina Mountains turned a glorious orange under the setting sun.
I heard a soft knock on my door.
Taber MacCallum walked in and plonked himself down on the sofa. Taber, a veritable bear of a young man only a few months earlier, was now as thin as a rail. Thick brown hair spilled over a prominent brow, under which shone penetrating green eyes. He was attractive, but it was his mind that fascinated me, allured me. The son of an American astrophysicist, he was exceptionally intelligent, thoughtful, and kind.
Taber was my best friend and my lover. I could read him like an open book, and this evening he seemed unusually tense.
“Hi, what’s up?” I inquired.
There was a long silence. Finally he broke the quiet. “I’m getting some strange readings in the lab.”
“What, the nitrogen generator giving you problems again?” I asked.
“No, it looks like we may be losing oxygen.”
Taber was the crewmember in charge of the analytical and other machinery in the lab. We all trusted him to tell us whether our air was safe to breathe, our food was safe to eat, and our water was safe to drink. One of his many jobs was to check daily the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. For this routine chore, Taber made use of the “sniffer system,” by which air from throughout the Biosphere was piped into a series of online analyzers in the lab that every fifteen minutes measured the amounts of eight important gases, including carbon dioxide, oxygen, and methane.
We knew from experiments as far back as the days of the Test Module, a sealed chamber one fourhundredth the size of Biosphere 2, that our oxygen and carbon dioxide were locked in a permanent dance. The oxygen level went down in proportion to the amount the carbon dioxide level went up—and vice versa.
Until this day in April, six months into our voluntary enclosure, Taber had tested the level of oxygen only with the sniffer system.
But he had carefully monitored the carbon dioxide level by means of a more precise method called gas chromatography. He knew that there had been a slight increase in carbon dioxide since we sealed the Biosphere, and so it made sense that, according to the sniffer system’s analysis, the oxygen level in our closed atmosphere had dropped slightly—to an expected 19.8 percent. This represented a drop of 1.1 percent below the 20.9 percent that is the oxygen level in the terrestrial atmosphere and what we had in the Biosphere in the beginning.
But this time, Taber also ran the oxygen figures from the chromatograph. He was stunned to find data saying the oxygen level in Biosphere 2 had dropped to 17.4 percent.
He did not believe it.
It was impossible that so much oxygen—in all, he calculated, roughly seven tons of it—had simply disappeared. He recalibrated the machine and ran more samples.
Again the computer readout said 17.4 percent.
No way. The oxygen simply could not be that low.
He ran the samples over and over, and the data were unyielding. Only 17.4 percent of our atmosphere was oxygen. This was a significant drop, a horrifying drop, the more so since it was inexplicable.
It meant that our life support system was truly failing. We were about a quarter of the way through our two-year mission and we could have lost about 15 percent of our oxygen. A little more and we’d be in the same situation as mountaineers above fourteen thousand feet—they begin to fall apart mentally and physically if they do not adapt or breathe bottled oxygen.
At the current rate, our atmosphere would be only 10 percent oxygen before the end of the two-year mission: no one could live on so little.
For the better part of two days and nights, Taber sat in the lab amid the cold machinery and blinking lights, his mind churning, desperately trying to understand the enigma.
Something was directly absorbing oxygen—a lot of oxygen—we needed to breathe. Or perhaps it was being used by microbes in respiration to produce carbon dioxide. If that was the case, then something was absorbing carbon dioxide as there was not enough of it in the atmosphere to account for the amount of oxygen missing. In any event, he knew he had to break the news.
After telling me, he went to Abigail Alling, the biospherian who ran the research inside Biosphere 2. Gaie, as we called her, was appalled. She and Taber immediately called outside the Biosphere to the project’s Director of Research and Development, John Allen. He refused to believe it.
“Go run it again,” he ordered, and Taber obliged, but the three of them finally had to confront the hard fact that a great deal of oxygen had vanished.
Taber spent the entire second night in the lab, trying to come up with an answer. He arrived in the dining room for our morning meeting looking exhausted and pale. The seven of us around the gray granite table all knew by now that there was some issue with the oxygen. We braced ourselves to hear how bad it was.
“Our oxygen is down below seventeen and a half percent,” Taber announced in a flat, toneless voice.
The table erupted with questions. What? How can that be? Are you sure? How? Where did it go?
“I have no idea,” Taber said. “I didn’t trust the instruments at first myself. But I’ve run so many samples the data has to be right.”
The ramifications were immense, and they were not lost on anyone that morning. It wasn’t that we risked dying—we could walk out of the airlock at any time if our environment became unlivable. But how could we walk out? At the outset we had declared to the media and the whole world that we would stay inside for two full years.
Leaving Biosphere 2 early was out of the question.
But if we stayed inside, we would likely be forced to pump in oxygen, which would break our promise that no material would go in or out of the hermetically sealed enclosure during our two-year mission.
The media had been hammering us for months, as had the scientific community. Surely, they would both write us off entirely after discovering this latest flaw in the workings of our Biosphere. If the design was flawed, perhaps the whole idea that humans could successfully create an artificial biosphere was also flawed. And if that were true, then Ed Bass, the Texan billionaire who bankrolled the project, would have wasted his $250 million. A quarter of a billion dollars. Perhaps Ed would stop funding us.
And what of the precious “self-organizing” notion we all shared whereby the Biosphere—its overall air, water, life, and chemistry—would seek its own equilibrium and, importantly, an equilibrium that would be habitable by humans. Well, it was self-organizing, all right—organizing us right out of the picture.
We sat stunned into silence. The news was far worse than we had imagined.
I felt a rush as the blood drained from my head down to my feet, and my toes and fingers tingled with adrenaline. My brain was spinning and I heard a voice screaming at me in my head:
“We’re screwed! We’re screwed!”