8 Men And Women Once Sealed Themselves Inside This Enormous Fake Mars Colony For 2 Years - Here's What It's Like Today

Biosphere 2 housed a crew of eight people for two years.Katja Schulz / Flickr

A decade before Elon Musk founded his fast-rising rocket company, SpaceX, or spoke publicly about colonizing Mars, a different billionaire captivated the world with Biosphere 2.

Ed Bass, an oil tycoon, spent about $250 million to build and operate that facility as a proof-of-concept for a permanent, self-sustaining habitat on Mars. Four men and four women sealed themselves inside the airtight space in September 1991 and emerged two years later.

The experimental space-age facility served as the stage for a spectacular and controversial story of human endurance.

Built into a hillside of the Arizona desert during the early 1990s, the complex remains a functional marvel of engineering.

Business Insider recently visited Biosphere 2 to learn about the many challenges that early Martian colonists could face.

Here's what it's like inside the 3.14-acre bubble today.

Biosphere 2 is nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains in Oracle, Arizona. The area is part of the Sonoran Desert — an arid, unforgiving, and eerily Mars-like region that stretches from western Mexico into the US Southwest.

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Source: Biosphere 2, Business Insider

A roughly 80-foot-tall glass pyramid poking out of the hillside greets visitors.

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Source: Biogeosciences, Business Insider

Farther west in the sprawling 40-acre campus are other futuristic structures.

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Source: "The Human Experiment," Business Insider

The architect Peter Pearce created Biosphere 2's space-age frame out of 77,000 steel struts and 6,600 silicon-lined glass panes to trap air inside. It can even withstand orange-size hail, which pummels Arizona about once every century.

Source: "The Human Experiment," Business Insider

The first crew (there were two) walked through a modified submarine bulkhead on September 26, 1991, and sealed the airlock behind them. They wouldn't leave for two years. That entryway is where tours begin today.

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Business Insider's tour guide was John Adams, the facility's deputy director. Adams, who has worked there since the mid-1990s, is an expert on its complex systems, science, and history.

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"It really showed us how little we truly understand Earth systems and how infinitely complex they are," Adams said of the first Biosphere 2 closure experiment. "There were a lot of people who said, 'You bottle this up, you close it up, it's just going to turn into a big ball of slime.'"

It didn't, and the eight crew members emerged alive — though they wound up needing some outside assistance.

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When the first crew of "biospherians" settled inside the complex, it trapped 7.2 million cubic feet of air — yet leaked only the equivalent of a thumb-size hole.

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Source: "The Human Experiment," Biosphere 2, Business Insider

Though the facility was once a privately funded experiment in human survival, the University of Arizona bought it in 2011. It's now a scientific research facility, conference center, and tourist attraction.

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Admission is $20 for an adult, with discounts for students, seniors, and military personnel.

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Biosphere 2 has seen about 3 million tourists and 500,000 students since 1991. The site also contains a village where visiting researchers can stay. It's quiet out there in the desert, save for the wailing of coyotes at dusk.

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Inside Biosphere 2, five "wilderness" zones — rainforest, ocean, savanna, marsh, and desert — emulated Earth's ecosystems. They helped scrub carbon dioxide from the air and generated oxygen. The crew lived in a connected habitat and farmed crops in an agriculture zone that's now called the hill slope.

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The kitchen was hallowed ground. Biospherians ate only what they could grow — mostly sweet potatoes and beans. It took four months to harvest enough ingredients to cook a pizza. Animals had to be raised and slaughtered to get meat. Coffee was a twice-monthly luxury.

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Source: "The Human Experiment," Business Insider

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