Meet the Terranauts

Biosphere 2, the ultimate human experiment, finally gets the fictional treatment it deserves

Ari Phillips

The question at the heart of the uncompromisingly grand Biosphere 2 project was always how are people going to survive and prosper in a future where Earth may not be enough.

More than 20 years since the closed ecological system in the Arizona desert initiated its first (and second to last) mission, that question remains as relevant as ever. As humans struggle to find ways to meet projected resource needs and climate change threatens catastrophic upheaval, the dream of colonizing the solar system is as vivid as ever. Obama thinks we can send humans to Mars by the 2030s. Future-fixated inventor and business magnate Elon Musk has a plan to get there even sooner.

Many will remember Biosphere 2 only vaguely, perhaps from its feature role in the 1996 alt-slacker trainwreck Pauly Shore film Bio-dome, or maybe its name simply evokes an image of a lonely, white, geodesic structure marooned in the high desert. While the three-acre edifice was seemingly transparent—allowing visitors to observe the Biospherians like a zoo exhibit—what happened behind the scenes out of public view was always the most fascinating part of the human experiment.

While a number of books have been written about the eight-person first mission and the truncated second mission by insiders, former insiders, and fascinated outsiders, acclaimed author T.C. Boyle’s new book The Terranauts, to be published by Ecco on October 25, is the first to give the wild tale the creative treatment it demands. The seemingly crazy project was born of otherworldly imagination and continues to thrive much more through incorporeal appeal rather than physical presence (The Biosphere 2 is now an ecological research facility owned by the University of Arizona). At the same time, irrepressible humanity—coming from both within and without—was the ultimate downfall of the project. We dream of the heavens, but we make our beds here on Earth.

Boyle’s novel is pregnant with human drama, and it builds on the same framework as the real experiment. Forty miles outside of Tucson, four men and four women are selected to live “under glass”, where they will spend two years tending to five biomes—rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean, and marsh. Their focus is on the ultimate sustainability; nothing in, nothing out. Not even themselves. A break of the airlock jeopardizes the experiment and gives the media endless fodder to make a mess with. Those inside are encouraged to imagine they’re on Mars, which if the program runs long enough (it’s meant to go for 100 years with new crews every two years) could actually come true. The eight subjects in Boyle’s novel are called Terranauts. In the 1990s, when Biosphere 2 was active, they were known as Biospherians.

The parallels between fact and fiction run much deeper. The whole ambitious enterprise is the brainchild of one man, named Jeremiah Reed or “God the Creator” in the book and John Allen in real life. It’s funded by a wealthy donor under the influence of the inventor’s unlimited enthusiasm and magnetic personality. Everyone has a nickname; a nice parallel to a story in which few things are as they seem. The tight-knit and private group is accused of being cultish—an accusation that can be hard for them to disavow. They have projects across the globe focusing on sustainable living and immersive research, including a ship that travels the seas and a remote ranch in Western Australia.

I know these things not only because I’ve read about them, but because I had my own brief period of immersion. After graduating from college in the mid 2000s, I moved back to Santa Fe, NM, and started to look for work in the book publishing industry. Through word of mouth, I heard about Synergetic Press, located on Synergia Ranch about a half hour outside of town. I arrived one morning to find a small adobe complex built around a courtyard. It had been constructed by the residents themselves on a shoestring budget many years before. The majority of the people living there, including Allen, had worked intimately on the Biosphere 2 project, one or two even lived inside it. Synergetic Press had been in charge of Biosphere 2-related publications back in the 1990s when it was headquartered just outside the facility in Oracle, Arizona.

Throughout the summer I ate lunch with Allen, then in his early 80s, several days a week. A small group would gather around a large wooden table inside or a patio table in the courtyard, shovel down some locally grown greens and a healthy protein, and allow Allen to lead a discussion of whatever topic had penetrated his thoughts during his morning routine, which included everything from orchard picking to writing poetry. It felt like I was nourishing my body and my mind.

During my few months on the job I had the responsibility of archiving photos from the group’s years of escapades. Among many other things, I was fascinated by the traveling performance troupe they had, which shows up in The Terranauts too when the characters are assigned plays to act out ostensibly to help relieve internal drama. This is just one of the many details in Boyle’s book that makes it clear he did extensive research, probing deep below the surface of the easily superficialized saga.

Boyle, known for his probing and wry accounts of American life, lays the foundation of human-driven apparatus that is the Biosphere 2 (or E2 as it’s called in the book) and doesn’t look back before making clear that every character, no matter how self-assured, is prone to self-deception and external manipulation. Narrated by three different Terranauts’ first-person accounts, the storyline switches between highly divergent perspectives at the beginning of each chapter. One can only imagine how much dissonance in the recounting of the mission there would be if Boyle included the thoughts of all eight Terranauts.

Near the end of the Book, Dawn Chapman, the attractive, hard-headed Terranaut who is the source of much of the drama, starts a chapter with a typical inward-looking observation to explain her actions:

There are times in life when you have to do what your heart tells you, no matter who it hurts or what the consequences are. It would be hard for me to explain to anybody who hasn’t lived inside to meld wholly with your environment, body and soul, to be so much a part of something you can’t imagine existing without you. When I was a girl I used to think of what would happen if I died, whether the world would go on as before—my parents, my brother, the kids at school—or just vanish as if it was my solitary dream and everything in creation belonged to me alone. That was how I felt about E2, whether it was justified or not.

In a day and age when rich people seek out ways to live forever and much of life exists outside the physical realm, Boyle’s book and the story it’s based upon remind us of our inescapable humanity and the fact that life is not really about one generation—whether Boomers or Millennials—but generation upon generation. At the same time, even with a keen focus on the distant future, it’s hard to really do anything but live in the present.

Even as the Terranauts spend their days eating bland meals and drudging through chores in an increasingly low-oxygen environment all for a greater cause, they find ways to celebrate; to drink home-brewed wine; to behave inappropriately; and to stab each other in the back for short-term gains. One can be sure that if we colonize Mars, the same type of release will be necessary and the same type of drama will ensue.

In the end, the fate of the Terranauts isn’t sealed by their scientific accomplishments or unwavering commitment, but by a nervous breakdown, the most human of human activities. However, the public is none the wiser to this cruel twist of fate, as it’s just another unexpected event in need of a positive spin from E2 headquarters.

If the Terranauts’ mission isn’t a success in the conventional sense, Boyle’s book gets at the real issue with trying to anticipate humankind’s future here on Earth or even on other planets if that were to come to pass: There’s just no predicting exactly how the story ends.