Biosphere 2, the failed experiment turned hugely popular field-research facility for Columbia students, is up for sale.
The glass and steel structure in the Arizona desert contains a rain forest, desert, savanna, marsh, and salt-water ocean. But the brainchild of billionaire Edward T. Bass was always about more than just the building. For a few thousand people, it was the experience of a lifetime.
The $200 million miniature Earth was originally constructed in 1984 by Decisions Investments Corporation as part of an experimental prototype of a space colony. Biosphere 2 first made headlines in the early '90s when an experiment where researchers attempted to live in the environment for a year failed.
In 1996, Columbia joined forces with DIC to convert the structure into a research facility. The 140-acre plot of land in the Arizona desert—of which 3.1 acres are enclosed in glass—became known as Columbia's western campus. More than 1,400 students studied environmental sciences and astronomy during semester-long programs and summer courses.
The partnership ended December 22, 2003, following a lawsuit brought against Columbia by the DIC in March of that year for its failure to live up to contractual obligations to operate Biosphere 2.
Columbia's involvement in the Biosphere began under the administration of former University President George Rupp. After President Lee Bollinger's arrival at Columbia, administrative support for the Biosphere waned.
In Jan. 2003, Barry Osmond, then president and executive director of the Biosphere, said that he had been getting signals for six months that the University wanted to pull out of Biosphere and called it "one of the most risky but most visionary programs at Columbia."
One month earlier, the Columbia administration had decided to move a recently founded Masters program in Public Administration in Earth Systems Science, Policy, and Management to the Morningside campus, a move that was widely seen as indicative of the end of the partnership.
"When the Masters program left, everyone knew," said Philip Yecko, a former professor of astronomy at the Biosphere who now teachers at MIT.
Since the research conducted at the Biosphere could be relocated to other labs, the move was not too detrimental to the research being conducted there. "It was a gift to be able to do research in the Biosphere, but you can do it in a tank in lab----—that is what is expected. The Biosphere just made it better," Yecko said.
For many of the students who studied in the desert, the program's commercial failure is overshadowed by their memorable experiences. "Yeah, it was sort of a crazy idea, but that was the magic of it," Peter Neofotis, CC '03, said. "It was giant temple of inspiration."
Potential buyers include "everything from government entities, universities, and private schools to church groups, resorts, and spas as potential owners," said Biosphere/DIC General Manager Christopher Bannon. "We'd love to see the Biosphere 2 used as a research activity, but we know that may not be the end result." The U.S. Department of Energy, Texas Christian University, and other groups have all shown interest in purchasing Biosphere 2, but no one has publicly made an offer.
As of now the Biosphere is still open as a tourist destination. The facility received more than 85,000 people last year, according to Bannon.