Part hipster, part artist, part Svengali, and part scientist, Roy Lee Walford had long been fascinated by ageing, even as a teenager. He was an actor, a writer, and an adventurer who followed the latest research in caloric restriction and life extension.
In the early 1990s, Walford got the chance to be part of something that would radically change his career, and his life.
In one of his periodic restless phases, he signed on as chief medical officer for Biosphere 2, the famous (or infamous) earthbound “space station” that was being built in the desert north of Tucson.
“I find it useful to punctuate time with dangerous and eccentric activities,” he explained to the Los Angeles Times.
Funded by the venturesome oil heir Ed Bass, who considered himself an environmentalist, Biosphere 2 was a glass-enclosed, 3.15‑acre terrarium that was designed to replicate the major ecosystems of earth.
Walford and seven other “Terranauts” would spend two years inside the hermetically sealed chamber, living off the food they produced in their extensive organic gardens and indoor fish farm.
They would receive nothing from outside, not even air or water, which would be recycled by the indoor ecosystem. When the crew entered the Biosphere on September 26, 1991, Walford cut a striking figure in his Star Trek — style uniform, which perfectly matched his Spock-like ears and shiny dome. Things soon took an unexpected turn, however, when the explorers discovered that they could not produce enough food to feed themselves.
Spotting an opportunity to turn lemons into diet lemonade, Walford decided that this was the perfect chance to study caloric restriction in people: Henceforth, the eight crew members would be placed on a sharply reduced ration of less than eighteen hundred calories per person per day, at first. As team physician, Walford would monitor its effects on them.
Normally, humans are hardwired to cheat on any kind of diet, which is another reason it is so difficult to study caloric restriction. But now the Biosphere had presented Walford with eight captive lab rats, for two years. Their so‑called healthy starvation diet was heavy on fruits (they grew bananas, papayas, and kumquats), and a long list of vegetables, nuts, and legumes, plus a handful of eggs, dairy from their goats, and a very small amount of tilapia and chicken.
Only 10 per cent of their calories came from fat, and they ate meat only on Sundays. All this was supposed to fuel them through eighty-hour weeks of serious manual labour, including tending the crops, maintaining heavy equipment, pruning back vines that climbed the glass-steel walls, and even donning scuba gear to clean the fish tanks.
Not surprisingly, the Terranauts lost weight like sumo wrestlers in a steam room, shedding pounds until their average BMI dropped below twenty for men and women alike (or in scientific terms, “really skinny”). One man lost 58 pounds, going from a portly 208 to a sleek 150.
They lost weight so fast that Walford grew concerned that their fat cells were releasing toxins, like pesticides and pollutants, back into their bodies. They were indeed, he found, but the strict diet and heavy physical workload also caused more immediate problems, like that they were starving.
According to crew member Jane Poynter, who wrote a memoir revealingly titled The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2, it became accepted practice to lick one’s plate clean after every meal, so as not to miss a single precious calorie.
The supply of bananas, the tastiest item on the menu, had to be kept under lock and key. Saddest of all, the Terranauts would occasionally peer through binoculars at tourists eating at the on‑site hot-dog stand, like monks watching porn.
“Roy was having a whale of a time, however,” Poynter deadpanned, “because this was his life’s work.”
When the eight Terranauts emerged from the Biosphere, in September 1993, pomp and ceremony competed with sheer relief that the long, intensely scrutinised project was finally over.
Though it had begun in an atmosphere of gee-whiz optimism — this is how we’ll live on Mars! — the project had endured withering scepticism and a spate of negative press, including a Village Voice takedown that explored the project’s roots in a strange organisation called Synergia, which the paper characterised as a cult.
Two years of confinement had divided the crew into bitter, warring factions; the tension and drama inside the Bubble actually helped inspire the reality TV series Big Brother. The meager diet had not helped morale, either. Opening the “seal” was meant to be a joyful day for all concerned. At least now they’d be able to visit the hot-dog stand.
For Walford, though, the end of the Biosphere marked the beginning of a dark new chapter of his life. He had been fit and vibrant when he entered the capsule, looking far younger than his sixty-seven years. Two years inside had ravaged his body. Perhaps it was the lack of food, perhaps something else, but in photos taken in the Biosphere, Walford is thin to the point of emaciation, his eyes haggard and sunken.
He’d lost 25 pounds from an already-lean 145, and he looks much older than the post- Biosphere version of himself, on the right.
But the real damage was invisible. In the six months after leaving the Biosphere, Walford fell into a deep depression, drinking his way through a bottle of vodka every four days. He had injured his back while working in the compound, and he could barely walk, at first.
Something seemed to have changed in his brain, as well: Just three years after leaving the Biosphere, he began experiencing episodes of “freezing,” where he would simply stop walking, and fall down. Soon he required a walker.
Despite his illness, though, Walford’s mind remained sharp, and he stuck to his diet, insisting that it had slowed its progression, rather than hastened it. As late as 2001, he touted the benefits of caloric restriction to Alan Alda, who then hosted a TV show for Scientific American, insisting that caloric restriction would “let me live longer than I would otherwise.”
He said he hoped to live to be 110 years old, just like Suzanne Somers.
But physically, he was a wreck. A video taken of Walford that same year is truly shocking: Barely a decade after entering Biosphere, as a vigorous real-life version of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, he had been reduced to a stooped, jittering old man, hunched over and barely able to walk on his own.
He had already been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, from which he eventually died in 2004. Although immortality had eluded him, Walford had packed more living into his seventy-nine years on earth than most of us could fit into three lifetimes.
From the book SPRING CHICKEN by Bill Gifford. Copyright © 2016 by Bill Gifford. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.