NOT LONG AGO, I SPENT AN AFTERNOON inside Biosphere II, a 3.14-acre vivarium designed as an experimental "self-contained" ecosystem. Biosphere II hosted two missions — the second aborted in 1994 — in which scientists lived in the dome for a period of two years and six months respectively, in the end learning more about the effects of voluntary human confinement than ecology. The ambitiously named structure (Earth being Biosphere I) was repurposed as a kind of laboratory and tourist attraction. Best known today as the inspiration for the Pauly Shore movie Biodome, the destination offers guided tours of thinly conceived ecosystems: a salty, brackish pond with a wave machine stands in for the ocean; huge vents cut into the site's floor supply an arid desert with a warm breeze. Most impressive are the building's soccer-field-sized "lungs": structures outfitted with rubber diaphragms that stretch to accommodate the expansion and contraction of internal air over the course of an Arizona day. Today, Biosphere II is mostly compelling as a thought experiment — one that you can walk around in. It seems unlikely that the simulated ocean will yield particularly useful experimental data, but as an art project or a philosophical provocation, it's pretty powerful. What does it mean to build a whole world? One inside of another? Standing in a constructed desert gazing through glass at a larger, surrounding desert, it's easy to start thinking about insides and outsides, about the membranes that at once separate atmospheres and contain them.
Spacesuit , architect Nicholas de Monchaux's wonderful material history, is mostly about these membranes. The book begins with that iconic photograph of Buzz Aldrin's figure against the surface of the moon — along with a simple question: "Why is this spacesuit soft?" For an answer, de Monchaux finds it necessary to look as far back as 1783, pulling in examples from fields as far-flung as computer simulation, psychopharmacology, haute couture, and the work of Gil Scott-Heron.
De Monchaux has constructed Spacesuit (maybe slightly too cleverly) as a series of layers, each corresponding to the 21 layers that comprised the A7L space suit of the Apollo missions. The author revels in finding curious details from the material history of the world, and Spacesuit bursts with dinner-party fodder: Did you know that the U.S. government's documentation of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests created a worldwide film shortage? Or that the Apollo mission's computer-backup system was crafted into a binary pattern that was then physically woven into ropes? And that only seamstresses could be called upon to do this work properly?
While some of the above content might qualify as pure trivia, Spacesuit hews mostly to a consistent theoretical concern similar to that of Bruno Latour's urban-planning potboiler,Aramis, or the Love of Technology. In that book, a graduate student attempts to discover who "killed" Aramis, the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system proposed and abandoned in 1980s Paris. Though the protagonist's detective work, in the end, proves inconclusive, Latour unveils a novel's worth of actors, motives, and backstories — illuminating not...read more