Jane Poynter on Becoming a Multi-Planetary Species

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"Commercial space is no longer laughable. It's inspirational."  By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

We're all familiar with biosphere one. It's called earth. But only eight people have lived in biosphere two. Jayne Poynter was one of them. She lived inside a materially closed but energetically open biosphere in Arizona for two years with seven other people, starting in 1991. To train, she had to spend long spans of time on a research boat in the Indian Ocean and on a cattle station out in the Australian outback to learn to deal with such isolation.

Why did she go through all that? The aim of the program that most excited her was designing a prototypical space base right here on Earth.

And what was it like? Poynter explained that living in biosphere 2 you were really aware, moment to moment, that you're exchanging atoms with other living things at all time. "It was almost a spiritual experience," she said.

Did the experiment take a psychological toll? Oh yes, she said, saying that when people are confined they experience symptoms like mood swings and depression. They also tend to break into warring factions. Eight apparently is the worst number for this latter effect possible (avoid it for founding teams, she suggested).

"Two of my best friends when I went into the biosphere were on the other side of the divide," Poynter explained, saying the experience was horrifying and heart-breaking.

After she left the biosphere she co-founded Paragon Space Development Corporation, which initially created tiny ecosystems that went up to the International Space Station. At that time commercial space was a joke. "A lot of things have changed since then," she said. There are more human space craft being developed now then in all of human history put together. It's an extraordinary time to be involved in space. "Commercial space is no longer laughable. It's inspirational," according to Poynter.

Poynter's company is now actually involved in three missions to Mars. One of which hopes to take a man and a women on a flyby of Mars, a 580-day. journey, in the near future. This is the sort of thing that can drive a generation's worth of innovation, Poynter said.

For the rest of us that won't be making it to Mars, Poynter's firm has spun off another company World View that is now aiming to take people up to the edge of space using a balloon.

"We live in a sci-fi world now," she concluded.

Would you like to book a seat on a balloon ride to the stratosphere?

Jessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, contributes regularly to Forbes and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.