Picturing Life on the Red Planet

Photographer and space fan Cassandra Klos chronicles practice missions to Mars

Perched on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, amidst lava fields speckled with jagged rocks, a remote research facility immerses its inhabitants in an unforgiving landscape. And that’s the point. “It takes away all of your earthly comforts,” said photographer Cassandra Klos, A14 (BFA). “When you arrive, you’re like, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.’”

Actually, you’re not on Earth anymore. At least, that’s the imaginative leap that people like Klos make when they visit the facility, known as the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS).

Traipsing across deserted terrain and manipulating her camera while wearing a cumbersome spacesuit, Klos chronicles Mars simulation missions: practice sessions for humanity’s next phase of space exploration. For weeks or months at a time, crews at HI-SEAS and other research stations mimic life on Mars. Their experiences help scientists prepare for the challenges that humans will face once they finally arrive. And Klos’s photos, depicting spacesuit-clad researchers and geodesic domes framed by scarlet horizons, give viewers a peek behind the scenes—and into the possibilities of the future.  

Klos has always been drawn to photos that blur the line between fact and science fiction. As an undergraduate at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, she worked on a photo project inspired by an alleged 1960s alien abduction in the White Mountains, reenacting the abductees’ story. A self-described space nerd who keeps tabs on the latest news from NASA, she first learned about the HI-SEAS research station in 2014. She made it her mission to get involved.

Gaining access to the facility wasn’t easy, but after a year of persistent outreach, she was invited to photograph the grounds and crew at HI-SEAS as they finished an eight-month simulation. Next, she applied for a position as artist-in-residence at another simulation facility, the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah; months later, she was embarking on her first two-week simulation mission there as a crew member. In all she has now participated in three simulation missions, including one as a commander leading a crew of artists. Her photos have graced the pages of Time, National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and more.

Simulation commander Michaela Musilova descends within a cave-like tube of hardened lava in Hawaii.

Photo: Cassandra Klos

Inhospitable conditions

Simulation commander Michaela Musilova descends within a cave-like tube of hardened lava in Hawaii, followed by fellow crew members. Musilova was studying how microbial life survives in inhospitable places on Earth and how that might be analogous to other planets.

Mars is indeed far away from Earth—140 million miles on average, and around 34 million when orbits are optimal—but in some ways, it’s getting closer each year. Both NASA and China hope to send humans there in the 2030s. Researchers are making progress not only in planning the journey (currently estimated to take nine months each way), but also in preparing for life upon arrival. Astronauts will need to rely on freeze-dried or indoor-grown food, deal with limited water and power, stay physically and mentally fit, and live alongside fellow crew members in very close quarters. They’ll also need to navigate difficult terrain and conduct experiments while wearing bulky spacesuits.

Simulation missions force crews to deal with all of these day-to-day issues, in most cases for the very first time. Crew members aren’t typically astronauts; they’re university students, journalists, or other enthusiasts like Klos who work on research projects at the stations to help inform future journeys. Once they arrive, they speak and act as if they are on another planet. Commanders ensure that everyone adheres to daily tasks, while mission control operators stationed back on Earth (read: back in town) relay information about weather and grant crew members permission to go outside.

Before departing, crews attend periodic Zoom meetings to get acquainted and discuss plans. Klos diligently practiced maneuvering her camera while wearing her dad’s motorcycle helmet and thick ski gloves before her first trip. But nothing could prepare her for the real thing. “You don't know exactly how you're going to feel until you're there and you're suddenly in your spacesuit, and you can’t move,” she said. “You’re surrounded by lava fields and these rocks that look like they'd be easy to cross. But suddenly you get close to them and they're the size of an SUV, and that's what you have to traverse.”

The missions aren’t just physically challenging. With limited power and energy, access to the internet and outside world is extremely limited. Homesickness inevitably sets in. “You’re not fully connected like we normally are,” Klos said. “Everyone misses their partners, their kids—it’s partially missing them, but also wishing you could share the experience with them, because it’s just so cool.” She’s learned to pack photos from home, bring board games to bond with fellow crew members, and study up as much as possible about each mission before leaving (all things she recommends the rest of us do if we ever get the chance to visit Mars).

Today Klos is based in Boston, working as the New England liaison for Duke University’s Archive of Documentary Arts and taking freelance photo assignments on the side. Despite all her experience in a spacesuit, she isn’t itching to hop on the first flight to the red planet. (She would consider the moon, though—a much more manageable three-day trip, each way.) Depicting actual space travel was never her goal. As an artist, she’s more focused on drawing viewers into a kind of simulation of their own. When we see her photos of life on Mars, she wants us to do a double take, to get caught somewhere in an image’s blurred line between fact and fiction. 

“I like to think about how I can make an audience question what they’re looking at, and to question the validity of photography as a tool to give us proof of a story,” she said. “This is a project that won’t be done until we have one person on Mars—because then it will be a reality.”

A rainbow appears after a storm outside the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation facility.
If Mars had rainbows

Photo: Cassandra Klos

If Mars had rainbows

A rainbow appears after a storm outside the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation facility. “Sometimes the sheer beauty of the landscape stops everyone from their routine tasks to admire our new frontier,” said photographer Cassandra Klos.
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