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Interplanetary colonisation with alumna Sally Silverstone

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Interplanetary colonisation with alumna Sally Silverstone

Friday 28 July 2017

Ahead of Sheffield Hallam University's 25th anniversary next year, we delved deep into the archives to find out more about how our story began. 

Amongst the old letters, graduation books and sepia tinged class photographs dating from as far back as 1938, we also unearthed a complete back catalogue of the now discontinued alumni magazine, Hallmark, which some of you may remember receiving. 

Flicking through the pages we came across an article entitled Escape From Planet Earth, which read more like something from a science fiction novel than an alumni magazine and written almost a quarter of a century ago. 

The article profiled class of 1978 Applied Social Studies graduate, Sally Silverstone, who in 1994, had just emerged from the Biosphere 2, having spent two years inside the huge glass and steel man-made environment in the middle of the Arizona Desert.   

Biosphere 2 incorporated four acres of glass panels in what resembled a giant futuristic rambling hothouse. 

Sally Silverstone was one of the eight strong team who were sealed in the airtight structure with only the resources they had within to survive for two years. Nothing, not even air, could get in or out. Inside more than 3,800 species of plants and animals lived in an eco-system that was designed to be capable of sustaining itself and its inhabitants with food, air and water. 

One of the aims of the Biosphere 2 was to lay the groundwork for the colonisation of other planets. Interplanetary colonists would need to be able to create and live in hermetically sealed environments if they were to survive. Biosphere 2 was a miniaturised eco-system comprised of radically different sub-environments or 'biomes'. These biomes included areas of desert, marsh, thorn scrub, rainforest, savannah and ocean and contained most of the flora and fauna found on the original Biosphere 1 - planet Earth itself. 

The 'Biospherians' grew their own food and took in with them chickens, pigs and goats to provide eggs, milk and meat. Luxuries were sparse, a small vineyard produced enough wine for a glass at Christmas and the ten coffee trees made a cappuccino a rare treat. 

The lungs of the Biosphere were the five wilderness areas, each of which not only had to sustain itself, but interconnect and co-exist with the others. The structure's tallest section held the 85 foot high rainforest biome. A mini mountain was situated here with a cloud forest at the top and a waterfall that descended into a floodplain teeming with reptiles and insects. 

Sally's route to the Biosphere began during her time at University when she met fellow student John Druitt and spent time with him and other friends farming poor arable land near Sheffield. Sally said: "My years studying Social Sciences at Sheffield gave me an excellent academic grounding for the community based conservation projects that I have since been involved with. My time there initiated a deep interest in human societies and how they organise, operate and evolve." 

After graduation, Sally teamed up with classmate John in South America to work on a reforestation project in the Puerto Rican rainforest. It was here that she learnt about Biosphere 2 and started collecting plant species for the project. Her work impressed the organisers so much that she was asked to join the team as an Information Systems Director. 

The Ocean of the Biosphere was a two million gallon tank of water supporting about 1,000 species of plants and animals. It also contained a painstakingly imported Caribbean coral reef and simulated artificially produced waves to stop debris and nutrients sinking to its floor.   

Each biome was based on an actual habitat, though plans had to be flexible to overcome an endless number of practical problems. The plants, for instance, had to be pollinated. Bees, however, cannot navigate their way without polarised light cues which the glass windows blocked out. The solution was humming birds, which had to be selected with a general purpose shape to their beak so that they could manage the many different types of blossoms which required their attention.

Sally said: "My years spent helping to design, build and ultimately operate Biosphere 2 were some of the most interesting and informative of my life. I feel so fortunate to have been part of this experience. The project was so far ahead of its time and its creation was a learning experience like no other. Essentially the project showed that it is feasible for humans to live sustainably inside a biosphere maintaining their air, water, food systems and natural biomes.

"For me the key lesson of Biosphere 2 was that we are each an integral part of an unimaginably complex living system, coexisting in mutual support. Whether or not we, as humans, can learn to live in our planet's biosphere with care a respect will govern whether or not we will survive as a species."

Since the project, Sally launched the Biosphere Foundation along with two of her fellow biospherians Mark Van Thillo and Abigail Alling. The foundation has been operating now for 23 years, maintaining a research vessel at sea and working with community conservation projects in many parts of the world.

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