Today, we speed success by using failure. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A private group in Oracle,
Arizona, is doing an unsettling piece of work.
They're trying to learn how to live in outer space
or on other planets. They're building something
called Biosphere-2, and they're practically
rewriting Genesis to do it.
Think what it means to fly clear of Earth. We leave
so much behind -- lakes and skies, insects and
weather. We leave all the ancient balances Earth
has forged to sustain life.
Engineers at NASA face the same problem. But they
attack it piece by piece. They've learned to grow
plants in zero-g. They have ways to make waste into
manure. Yet they've flown only what we call open
systems. Astronauts carry their own food and water
-- then use it up. They dump urine overboard. They
freeze-dry their solid waste. NASA is leaving Earth
only bit by bit. Her sallies into space are still
close-coupled to home.
None of that for the Arizona group! Texan Edward
Bass is bankrolling the work. They mean to create a
sealed ecosystem. They'll put four men and four
women in a huge greenhouse and lock the door for
two years. No water or air will enter or leave. No
material -- no living thing -- will pass through
the glass walls.
The three-acre greenhouse encloses a mini-earth.
It'll hold a desert, a tropical rain forest, a
savanna and a small salt sea. 3800 plant species
will try to live in this great Noah's Ark. So will
fish, goats, chickens and pigs. For two years,
eight unmarried men and women will reinvent society
It's another way to deal with the same questions
NASA faces. The Arizona group will try do it all at
once. Of course, they'll face failures. Species
will die in that closed world. Subsystems will
fail. Yet that's the strength of the project.
An engineer at our university, Jack Matson, teaches
creative design. He's coined the term "intelligent
fast failure." He tells students that successful
designers begin by failing rapidly, many times. By
that measure the learning payoff in Arizona should
But NASA's in a different business. Sending humans
up on those great Roman candles leaves too little
margin for error. Designs have to be perfect before
NASA can try them. The price of failure is too
high. Penalties as harsh as that slow the learning
The Arizona project will expose weakness. The
hidden traps of man-made biospheres will come to
light. Meanwhile, at NASA, engineers will keep
creating the high-tech components of space and
planetary stations. Only when these conflicting
means fuse can we hope to step clear of our fragile
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds