To say that Biosphere 2, the pet project of Texas billionaire Ed Bass, had a troubled history would be an understatement. The self-contained prototype space colony in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona has been something of a joke since it began experiments in 1991. "It's not built for science," says Klaus Lackner, a geophysicist at Columbia University who has spent time there. "It's built to see if people can lock themselves inside and garden enough to survive."
In October Bass put the giant terrarium up for sale. But so far it isn't clear whether bids will surpass the facility's estimated $200 million price tag. He is now reviewing bids from four developers who want to use the largely undeveloped 1,650-acre property for houses or apartments. The biosphere itself will most likely wind up as part of nearby Arizona State University, says Jonathan Fink, a geologist and vice president for research and economic affairs at the school.
Columbia took over Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 is Earth) in 1995 and did produce some science—most notably proof that increases in CO2 levels hinder coral-reef growth. "They beat out billions of dollars spent in climate studies," said Lackner. "That one result justifies all the costs and insanity."
Columbia ended its contract with the facility two years ago. Since then it has been visited only by tourists, but Lackner thinks it could still be an excellent tool with which to study climate change. "I'd rather study global warming with a toy version of the planet," he says, "than with the real thing."