Pinal County’s landscape has been seen in quite a few films, but a new documentary focuses on reality rather than fiction. Matt Wolf’s “Spaceship Earth” looks at the history of Biosphere 2, the early-1990s science experiment that remains as a research center and picturesque tourist attraction with a mountain backdrop near Oracle.
The idea that living in a closed environment was being attempted was big news at the end of the last century. Steve Bannon, now a key adviser to President Trump, was part of the management team for a while. Controversy arose when one of the eight biospherians was injured, left for treatment and then returned with supplies. Later it was revealed that some fresh air was pumped in because of a deficiency inside.
John Allen was the leader of a group that previously had formed a theater troupe in San Francisco, started a ranch, built a ship that they sailed around the world and built a hotel in Kathmandu. The backer was Texas oil billionaire Ed Bass. Biosphere 2 was covered by the news media at the time as either a historic event, “ecological entertainment” or, according to ABC’s Peter Jennings, “a tourist attraction run by questionable characters.”
Bannon was brought in after Bass fired the top executives.
Biosphere 2 later came under the management of Columbia University, which ended the closed-system operation, and now it is home to some projects of nearby University of Arizona. This came with the help of donations, and Bass has continued to provide some funding of his old dream. The UA’s ownership apparently prevented demolition of the giant dome.
Wolf has a history of showcasing eccentric people, and he found some with this project. The success of Biosphere 2 is debated, but it is nice that it remains for visitors to see. “Spaceship Earth” provides some insight into the site’s complicated and colorful history.