Before I get into Levi and I's trip to Biosphere 2, lets go over a bit of background, from a 10 year old's perspective. As a child growing up in the 1990's, I kept hearing about this magical place called Biosphere 2, where a team of scientists and at least one very rich person had built a complex ecosystem that was closed to the outside world and sent a few people to live there for two years.
Facsinated by this idea, I tried to build my own closed systems, usually without much success, although I once got a small plant and some ants to live together for almost a week. Usually, my attempts at building closed systems consisted of an insect, a plant or a few plants, and one of those little clear balls with toys in them (minus the toy), sealed with a bit of chewing gum. They tended to die in the space of a few hours, but as I got better at picking species, adding the right amount of water, pulling plants by the root, etc, I got these little systems to survive longer and longer. Needless to say, these were never really closed systems, but I learned a lot of early lessons in ecology by playing with them.
Later, when I told people about Biosphere 2, I realized that the public largely thought of it as a failed project. Not only that, but the project had become a sort of flagship for closed systems, on earth but more importantly in space. When the project "failed," it took with it the reputation of and funding for the whole field, setting this incredibly important area of study back about 20 years. This is especially unfortunate because the failure was really more one of public relations than of science. Biosphere 2 set records for the longest running closed system, and taught us valuable scientific lessons about running a closed system, lessons which might have been more disasterous had they been learnt on, say, the moon. Now that people think "failed" when you say Biosphere 2, any other project like it can be dismissed with a snooty, "oh, we tried that already and it didn't work." Imagine if we had given up after the first crashed airplane prototype, or the first dead computer bank, or even the first exploded space shuttle!
Right about here is where my ideas diverge from traditional environmentalism. In the long term, and I mean the extreme long term, it is very important that we bring the life that has evolved here on Earth to other planets, just in case something happens to ours. Biosphere 2 was an important step in that direction, an attempt to create a really big bottle, seal some plants and animals (including people) in it, and see how long we can get them to last, with the express purpose of learning lessons for future space colonies. Other projects like it need to be funded, and some are progressing, but the field as a whole still suffers from a public that thinks the grand project is either unimportant or imposible.
Like most grand projects related to space, creating a closed ecological system that can support humans will (and has) taught us lessons that we can apply here at home. Just like the first space age brought us tang, dry freezing, and communications sattelites, Biosphere 2 and other projects can teach us us important lessons about the carbon cycle, about sustainable intensive agriculture, and about recreating and managing ecosystems. Restoration ecology has a lot to gain in this endeavor, and a lot to teach as well. I see the two fields as sisters, essentially the same project with slightly different goals. One field tries to re-assemble functioning ecosystems in places where they've been obliterated, the other tries to assemble functioning ecosystems in closed jars that can be transported into space. Both are in the business of assembling functioning ecosystems, and both benefit when one succeeds. My only hope is that both carry out their missions as far and as fast as possible, because if one of them fails, we're all dead.
Here's to the year 5000!
*Image credits: Toy capsule image was taken by Charles Nguyen and found on the wikimedia page http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gachapon.jpg