It doesn’t get much stranger than Spaceship Earth, the fascinating new documentary about the unbelievably true story of eight strangers who spent two years quarantined inside a man-built replica of the Earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. And given that Americans are being forced to shelter in place or self-quarantine amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, this 30-year old story about their experiment feels more timely than ever.
In 1991, an ambitious idea to have a small group of people lock themselves in a biosphere in order to see how they could ultimately survive became a worldwide phenomenon as fans and the media alike kept daily track of life inside the dome, where these volunteers faced life-threatening problems and criticism from the scientific community.
Despite a depleting oxygen supply, factions within the group and other problems faced by the team, Roy Walford, Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, and Linda Leigh managed to spend two years, from Sept. 26, 1991 to Sept. 26, 1993 inside the structure.
While what actual scientific results came out of the experiment have since been debated -- it has been deemed a “failure” in certain circles -- there’s no doubting the extraordinary feat -- and what the Smithsonian Institution called “acts of vision and courage” -- achieved by the construction of Biosphere 2 and the people who lived inside it.
In fact, it’s that spirit and fascination surrounding the latter that captured the attention of director Matt Wolf, who became determined to tell the story of its inventors and participants.
“I was nine years old when Biosphere 2 happened, so I had no recollection of it,” he tells ET’s Ash Crossan about discovering what looked like photos of people on the set of a sci-fi movie was actually the members (clad in bright red jumpsuits) from an experiment that took place nearly 30 years ago. “It didn’t take me long to realize that this was in fact a real project… and at that point I was just determined to tell their story.” (Although, it should be noted that Biopshere 2 did inspire the 1996 Pauly Shore box office dud, Bio-Dome.)
While the experiment seems stranger than fiction, the backstory of the mission is even more bizarre. Twenty-five years prior, the people who conceived of and went on to create Biosphere 2 were nothing more than a theater collective led by inventor John Allen. Over time, the group went on to tackle other projects like building a sustainable farm and a ship from scratch. They eventually traveled the world, helping to build structures and foundations before returning to the U.S. to put their full efforts into figuring out how to combat climate change.