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Features / Photography

Photographer Cassandra Klos documents ‘life on Mars’ in the Hawaiian desert

It’s the summer of 2014 and six people are returning to Earth after half a year of isolation. With only each other’s company and no phones or Skype, a file drop or email (with a 20-minute delay) has been their only means of communication with any human outside of their circle. Having experienced weeks of eating only freeze-dried food and living in a uniform of prototype space suits, the crew are welcomed back to normality by Canadian astronaut-turned-social-media-star, Chris Hadfield on Twitter.

Although resembling an intrepid expedition into outer space in every way, this mission took place no further than the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano on the island of Hawaii at The Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation. Having just graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston at the time, photographer Cassandra Klos saw Chris Hadfield’s tweet and so began a project which has kept her busy ever since.

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John Kennard of HERA XIII simulates a spacewalk

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Avishek Ghosh looks a plane sample

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Stergios Palpanis during EVA

During her studies, Cassandra undertook a project titled The Abductees in which she recreated the story of an alien abduction, fabricating a dual reality where photographic evidence existed for a couple who claimed to be abducted by aliens in 1961. “I had been following Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (famous for his music videos on the ISS) on social media when he mentioned how people at the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation were “coming back” to Earth after a six-month expedition on ‘Mars’,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Naturally, I was intrigued by the subject matter of Mars simulations being another version of a dual reality, and from there I dove headfirst into researching these Mars simulation sites and what they were researching.”

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Jeffrey Kluger watches a rare Martian sunset during “24 Hours of Simulation” at the HISEAS facility

The Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (aka HI-SEAS), along with a number of similar facilities is the latest step in mankind’s quest to visit Mars. Resembling the conditions of our neighbouring planet, the site is accessible all year round, has very little variation in weather and facilitates tasks such as geological field work by both humans and robots. With its red dusty terrain and conditions of isolation, the site is used to test the human body and mind’s reactions in an attempt to ascertain if we could ever relocate to “The Red Planet”.

After a year of solid research and persistently trying to gain access, Cassandra first visited HI-SEAS in the summer of 2015. With no idea what to expect, she timed her arrival with the “return” of the HI-SEAS III crew. “I didn’t know if I would get any photographs worthy of a series and it was a huge risk as I had never traveled so far to work on a photography project,” Cassandra recalls of the start of her ongoing work Mars On Earth. Her experience with the crew proved to be worthwhile, however, and “learning from their experiences has pushed the project ever since.”

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Juan Jose Garcia of MDRS 181

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Commander James Titus of HERA XIII

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A rover travels along the Martian terrain as part of the annual University Rover Challenge in Hanksville, Utah.

Although having no official further education in a science, technology, engineering or mathematical field, Cassandra considers herself a self-taught scientist. Having deliberated exploring her interests formally by going back to school, she instead turned to her camera. “What I love about being an artist is that you can put on many hats and step into many experiences, I like that freedom,” she explains.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, Mars On Earth has lead Cassandra to three active simulations in the United States. After her initial visit to HI-SEAS, she returned once more and participated in a “24 Hours of Sim”, an invaluable experience in terms of insight. After HI-SEAS she travelled to the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah (MDRS), an installation facilitated by the Mars Society that has been running for 17 years. Here, she participated in a total of four weeks of simulation as part of Crew 155 and later as Commander of 181 – the first full crew of artists in a Mars simulation. Lastly, she visited the Human Exploration Research Analog at Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas (HERA) to spend time getting the people and the community of scientists that operate there.

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HISEAS IV crew-member Christiane Heinecke sits in a lava tube her crew discovered during their one-year in simulation

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MDRS Crew 155 (Jackelynne Silva-Martinez, Sam Harrison, and Commander Paul Bakken) work diligently during EVA

As the place she spent the most time, it’s no wonder that Cassandra recounts her experience at MDRS as among the most memorable. “What happens on Mars usually stays on Mars… unless it gets written up in the reports to Mission Control,” she jokes, going on to say “my favourite story involves my first real simulation with Crew 155 at the Mars Desert Research Station.”

Cassandra set up her large format camera, pointed at the Station with the aim of capturing a long exposure shot of the night on “switch over” day. “Switch over day is the last day one crew will be inhabiting the Station, and another crew is moving in,” she explains. As a result, simulation rules are a lot more relaxed as the crew members busy themselves cleaning and packing up their belongings. Since beds are limited on this day, the incoming crew usually finds quarters in the science lab or camping outside. “As it was November in the Utah desert, a few members of Crew 156 decided to camp outside but didn’t notify us,” Cassandra tells It’s Nice That.

“So I set up a long exposure on my camera and walked back to the Hab. My crew-mate Jackelynne and I ventured out after about 25 minutes, I searched for my camera and tripod in pure darkness. Before we could reach it, we heard talking coming from the darkness. Having just spent two-weeks in one of most isolated environments in the United States the voices came as quite a shock. Suddenly Jackelynne and I were screaming bloody murder as we pointed our flashlights to the rogue Crew 156 members and ran back to the Hab,” she recalls. The resulting negatives captured the entire incident showing the Hab and the intended star trails but also crew members setting up their camp and the trails of flashlights across the composition as Cassandra and Jacklynne hurried away. “It remains one of my favourite images in the project simply because of the backstory,” Cassandra says.

Cassandra’s prolonged interactions with the workers and pioneers who inhabit these strange locations are evident in the intimate way they have allowed her to portray them. As a world usually kept so under wraps and exclusive, Mars On Earth provides a glimpse into that which most of us could only long to experience. As what could easily be mistaken for stills from the latest science fiction blockbuster, it is hard to believe that the photos in Mars On Earth were taken so close to home.

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A nightly patrol around the Mars Desert Research Station (see article for context)

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MDRS 155 Executive Officer Jackelynne Silva-Martinez studies Martian life

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MDRS Crew 181 Engineer Charlie Rogers