Twenty miles north of Tucson, on a spectacular desert site nestled in the Catalina Mountains, a self-contained miniature Earth is about to be born. Just after passing the guard gate on the 2,500-acre SunSpace Ranch, an eye-popping glass terrarium the size of three football fields glimmers under the desert sun. The airtight, waterproof structure of Biosphere 2--built by the avant-garde Pearce Systems--is stunning in its scope and beauty.

Inside and around this saguaro-ringed Arizona complex near the town of Oracle, there's a mounting anticipation, expectation, almost a fervor--probably akin to the frisson that permeated Alamogordo 46 years ago--that all involved are on the verge of something Very Big.

When the few remaining glass plates are sealed in the coming months, Biosphere 2 will become home to an eight-person crew and 4,000 plant and animal species which--cut off from the Earth's atmosphere--will attempt to sustain themselves for two years. Eventually, they hope to do so for as much as a century.

I tingle as I enter this near-completed replicate world, as if I'd been transported onto the set of the cult classic Silent Running. In the lush swaddle of the tropical rain forest "biome," a fertile humidity caresses my lungs and the gentle babble of the human-made waterfall soothes and calms. Above me, a mechanical cloud generator spews a white puff that gathers and lingers underneath the sylvan canopy. From this, the highest vantage point inside the human aquarium, I can see the four other biomes--a savanna, a desert, an ocean, a marsh--stretched out below, four complete ecosystems each simultaneously autonomous and interdependent, each with a complex set of tasks in achieving a biological balance.

From the rain forest, a trail through a bamboo grove winds down past a lagoon, over a Caribbean coral reef, and skirts the "ocean," which is delicately stirred by a wave machine and teeming with fish. A white sand beach against a grayish rock cliff seems lifted from Acapulco.

To the left and upward, African grasslands form a verdant savanna (a primary source of oxygen), which eventually yields to the Biosphere's low point--a cactus-studded desert much like the one on the other side of the MD120glass. Beside the mosquelike structure that will be living quarters for the human crew, "intensive agriculture" plots will serve as the Biospherians' breadbasket. Organic "soil bed reactors"--composed of plants and special microbes--will purify the air, the Biospherians claim. At the bottom end of the intensive ag area, tanks of tilapia fish will not only provide protein for the humans but their waste will fertilize the adjacent rice crops. Algae to feed the fish will be fertilized by recycled human waste.

Conceived as a fusion of earth sciences and high technology, Biosphere 2's basement--the "Technosphere"--is crammed with tens of millions of dollars in electronic and mechanical systems. As I descend a winding staircase, I enter what looks like the innards of a battleship or, better yet, a submarine. Air movers and filters hum, mulchers and recyclers crunch and clang, banks of computers, sensors, and monitors blink and flash. On either side of the Biosphere, two humongous "lungs"--each the size of a high school gymnasium, each with an eight-ton rubber diaphragm--expand and contract as the glass dome's interior temperature rises and falls.

After six years of planning and construction costing $100 million--provided by Edward Bass, a member of America's fourth richest family--and after more than a year of postponements of its "launch date," the facility is now scheduled for "final enclosure" sometime this year. Some compare Biosphere to Noah's Ark. Discover magazine calls it "the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President Kennedy launched us toward the moon." Established as a for-profit venture-capital enterprise, the Biosphere intends to make scientific history while making money. Its stated research goals--in these ecologically minded times--are to teach us more about the intricate interaction of life systems of our own world, how they can be protected and restored. And, further, how we might extend life to other planets.

"It will teach us more about our natural world than we have learned in all the time we have worked as scientists on the natural world till now," says Dr. Walter Adey, whose Marine Systems Lab of the Smithsonian Institution has been contracted as a consultant by the Biosphere's parent company, Space Biospheres Venture Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 glazed-glass structure manned by red-suited Biospherians.

That the Biosphere basks in all these camera-friendly theatrics is hardly an accident. Because in all of this gee-whiz imagery of an ecologically balanced Earth-in-a-bottle, there's an ugly crack.

Indeed, the group that built, conceived and directs the biosphere project is not a group of high-tech researchers on the cutting edge of science but a claque of recycled theater performers that evolved out of an authoritarian--decidedly nonscientific--personality cult.

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Marc Cooper