SCOTT SIMON, host:
Biosphere II was ridiculed as a stunt, acclaimed as an experiment, and watched with rapt interest by millions in the early 1990s. Four men and four women, volunteers, were bolted into what amounted to a three-acre greenhouse in the Arizona desert. For two years they had to grow their own food, live off their own recycled water, even breathe the air of an atmosphere that was sustained by their own small rain forest, savannah, ocean and farm. The Biosphere was a feat of engineering and even a tourist enterprise. But the greatest challenge might have been just getting along with each other. Jane Poynter was one of those eight. She had been a ski instructor, a secretarial student, a drama student. She had worked in the Australian outback before that was a name for a chain steakhouse, and had sailed the Indian Ocean. She has now written a book about her time inside that desert dome, "The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere II."
Jayne Poynter joins us from the studios of KUAZ in Tucson. Thanks very much for being with us.
Ms. JAYNE POYNTER (Author): Well, thanks so much. It's a joy to be on your show.
SIMON: And Biosphere II - people might wonder what happened to Biosphere I. We're standing on it, right?
Ms. POYNTER: Yeah, that's right. The idea is that we all live in Biosphere I, the global biosphere around the Earth.
SIMON: Remind us of what you had hoped to explore and establish with Biosphere II.
Ms. POYNTER: Well, the initial goals of the biosphere were really two-fold. You know, we were, at that time, talking a lot about going to Mars in very serious terms. And so Biosphere II was an attempt at a prototype of, let's say, a space base on Mars. And then the other goal was really to be a test tube for life, if you will. You know, can we bottle up life, a biosphere like the Earth, so that we can really understand more about the Earth?
SIMON: And who else was in there with you?
Ms. POYNTER: Well, there were seven other people. And of course one of them ended up being my husband, Taber.
SIMON: Yeah, let's mention Taber's last name too - Taber MacCallum, why don't we?
Ms. POYNTER: Thank you. So then there was Roy Walford, who was the doctor inside the biosphere, and we ended up being his first human guinea pigs for what he called his high-low diet, which was a rather excruciating diet comprised of being a very high nutrition diet, but very low on calories. Then there were several other people. Linda Leigh was in there, who was a botanist; Abigail Alling, who was a marine biologist; Mark Nelson, who was in charge of our waste recycling systems, lucky man; and let's see, Mark Van Thillo was in charge of all of the machines inside. And who am I forgetting? Sally Silverstone, who was our captain. How could I forget our captain?
SIMON: Food really became an issue in several different ways, didn't it?
Ms. POYNTER: Oh my goodness, it did. In fact, we had terrible bad luck. In the two years that we were in, we had two El Nino years back to back. And so that subsequently meant that we didn't really quite grow enough food. The net result was that we were terribly hungry all the time. I mean you got up from a meal hungry and it was really quite miserable from that point of view. But you know, it also meant it was rather difficult for us to get our jobs done because we were so fatigued.
SIMON: What was your job again?
Ms. POYNTER: I was in charge of the agriculture, in charge of growing the food. So I felt a little responsible as I started seeing plants succumbing to the bad weather outside.
SIMON: You and your crewmates wound up being orange, didn't you?
Ms. POYNTER: Oh, we did - we ate so many sweet potatoes that we got carotenosis, which is from the beta carotene in the skin, which is why a sweet potato is orange. And it was particularly bad on the calluses on our hands. And we had this biospherian handshake, which was, you know, of course we couldn't go out and see anybody, but when people came to see us, they came to the window that had a telephone on the outside and we had a phone on the inside and you'd put your hand, one on either side of the glass pane in a hello, how are you greeting. And people would look shocked at our hands because the calluses were literally almost florescent orange. It was quite bizarre.
SIMON: I have to get you to talk about some of the interpersonal relationships. And I'm even going to introduce the word frictions.
Ms. POYNTER: Well, that's very PC of you. I think it was jolly well more than friction. You know, it was most unfortunate because six months into the mission we broke into two factions. And the most heartbreaking thing for me about that was that two people on the other side of the divide were my best friends when I went into Biosphere II. And it turns out that these factions are very common in small groups in isolation. There's now a whole branch of psychology called isolated confined environment psychology, of all things. You know, they study people, like in the Antarctic, or when they go into space, and it turns out that this bifurcation of small groups is just something that happens.
SIMON: Why were there two different factions? Did you have substantial disagreements about what was going on there or interpersonal, or was it all a little hard to understand now?
Ms. POYNTER: No, in fact, what I thought then is really what I think now, which is that we broke over a rather traditional kind of break. It was sort of management versus science, if you will. And when things started going wrong, like we did have a problem with oxygen levels and we weren't growing enough food, you know, some of felt, you know, let's bring in some food so that we can actually do more science. And the other side was saying, no, you're not going to bring in food, basically saying, you know, this is a survival mission. And so - no, I just really felt, as did the other folks on my side of the divide, that we were behaving incredibly unprofessionally in some ways.
SIMON: What did you notice when you got back into the world?
Ms. POYNTER: Well, I noticed a contrast in simplicity. I mean inside Biosphere II, all I had to worry about was, you know, weeding the next field and keeping track of a pair of pruning shears and my radio. And I got out of Biosphere II and I lost everything. I couldn't keep track of my handbag, my sun glasses, my keys, and it was in some strange way what I imagine it must be like to be a child. I don't really remember that wonderment as a child, but I certainly experienced something that I imagine is akin to it when I came out of the biosphere. I mean, everything was suddenly new, even junk mail was exciting. And you know, I'd go to the Safeway or something and just stand agog at all of these, the hundreds of bottles of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup, and good lord, look at these racks of wine. It was - everything was exciting.
SIMON: Jane, very nice talking to you. Thank you so much.
Ms. POYNTER: Thank you.
SIMON: Jayne Poynter, one of the eight biospherians. She's now the co-founder of the Paragon Space Development Corporation in Tucson and the author of a book, "The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere II."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.