Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Here’s what a photographer discovered when she spent two weeks at a Mars simulator.
At night, says photographer Cassandra Klos, Mars is dark—very, very dark. As she and her crew sat playing a card game toward the end of their two-week mission this November, the power suddenly went out, and the entire research station was bathed in blackness.
“Suddenly, it became extremely clear that we had become this team,” Klos says. “[We said,] ‘So-and-so, go get the headlamp, so-and-so, get the water tank, I’ll go put on a suit and see what happened with our gas levels.’ Everyone knew what their job was, [and] everyone knew what they had to do in this environment.”
“In the end,” Klos says, “we were so much like a family.”
That’s what two weeks on the Mars Desert Research Station will do for you. Actually, it’s not on Mars at all. The interplanetary simulator has run in Hanksville, Utah, since 2001. Operated by the Mars Society, a volunteer space advocacy organization, the location was chosen for its isolation, its rocky landscape, and its Red Planet-like dust and soil. The MDRS is perhaps the closest humans have ever gotten to the fourth rock from the sun—at least until NASA sends people there in the 2030s.
The MDRS hosts a rotating cast of seven crew members each season, mostly professional scientists and engineers hoping to run experiments or just live that Mars lifestyle. Klos, however, applied as an artist in residence. Her larger photography project seeks to understand how humans are readying themselves for space travel, and explores the suspension of belief required to participate in a Mars simulation. Klos has also photographed a “space crew” after their trip to a simulation in Hawaii.
Because Klos’s six-man crew was the first on the Utah campus this season, it mostly performed maintenance work: repainting the Hab (the small “habitat” facility where they lived); patching up the engineering bay; completing the tunnel system to the GreenHab, the new greenhouse. For the sake of authenticity, the crew had to wear suits—complete with oxygen tanks—each time they stepped outside their habitat. They also cooked their own food in Mars-like conditions, which Klos indicates took some perseverance and tolerance for less-than-palatable cuisine.
And there were dust storms. In her final entry in the crew’s log, Klos wrote: “The eerie noises the wind made as it whipped through the crevices of the Hab made us feel like we were more on Mars than ever.”