Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 488:
LIVING IN OUTER SPACE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 488.

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 inside it.

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 be immense.

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 process.

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 island home.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Broad, W.J., Ventures Test Rival Ways to Recreate the World in a Spacecraft. Science Times, The New York Times, Tuesday, November 6, 1990, pp. B5 and B8.

Matson, J.V., In Failure 101, University of Houston Engineering Professor Offers an Innovative and Creative Approach to Design. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 1990, pp. A15 and A20. (Also see a forthcoming book by Matson, titled Innovation the Easy Way. Professor Matson teaches Civil Engineering at the University of Houston.)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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