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Crew enters Biosphere 2

As hundreds cheered, seven people from five countries stepped through an airlock Sunday for the second mission inside Biosphere 2.

The low-key send-off marked a new research phase for the domed ecological lab as an earnest scientific tool. A policy change now allows scientists in for short-term projects.

Harvard zoology professor Stephen J. Gould told the five men and two women that the "second time is the hardest, and also in a key respect the most important" _ with consistency the goal and science still watching the outcome.

The crew comes from Mexico, Nepal, Australia, England and the United States. All but one will stay inside the 3-acre glass-and-steel bubble for at least 10{ months.

Norberto Alvarez-Romo, 40, a native of Mexico and a vice president of Space Biospheres Ventures, the experiment's operator, will stay 120 days.

Officials say the 2{-year-old, $150-million project, backed by Texas billionaire Edward Bass and designed to run for 100 years, will carry on continuously, like a remote research station, with rotating crews.

The project is private and for-profit. Its goals include finding ways to solve Earth's environmental problems and developing technological applications for commercial spinoffs.

The ceremony drew far less media interest than the first crew's Sept.

26, 1991, send-off for a two-year stay.

"The eyes of the world aren't on you anymore, but the eyes of science are, and the hopes of the world are," Gould said.

Other crew members: John Druitt, of England; Matthew Finn, 35, of Washington, D.C.; Pascale Maslin, 34, of Australia; Charlotte Godfrey, 22, of Tucson; Rodrigo Fernandez del Valle, 24, of Mexico; and Tilak Ram Mahato, 30, of Nepal.

Biosphere 2 has rain forest, ocean, savannah, desert-turned-chaparral, marsh, a farm and 10 one-person apartments. It is sealed from the outside world; the crew raises its food and recycles air, water and wastes.

During the first mission, Biosphere 2 lost credibility with the public and scientists because of various mishaps and unexpected developments. Claims about its self-sufficiency were deflated as crops failed and food was supplemented with previously stored crops and seed. Oxygen was pumped in to sustain the crew, and prominent scientists on its advisory panel quit.