Inside the Experiment to Create Mars on Earth

Photographs by Cassandra Klos Text written by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz
Cassandra Klos grew up in rural New Hampshire and was able to see the stars easily. She traced the constellations using her finger and imagined what it would be like to travel among them. She began a photo project about Betty Hill and Barney Hill as a college student in art. They claimed that they were abducted by aliens.

Klos then set off on her first mission for Mars.

It is important to be clear that no human has ever stepped foot on Mars. NASA hopes to send a crew to Mars in the 2030s. SpaceX, a private company, is also working to establish a permanent Martian presence, with starships that can transport humans back and forth from Earth. SpaceX founder Elon Musk stated in April that the company does not want to be a single-planet species. "We want to become a multi-planet specie."

There is some planning to be done. Part of the challenge is designing the right living and spacecraft. There are important but not so simple questions. How can people shower when they have a very limited water supply? How will it be possible to grow fresh greens in order to supplement the constant diet of dehydrated food? Martian habitats will end up looking like the set of Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, where hell are other people play?

These kinds of questions were the purpose of Klos' two-week 2015 mission. It was held at the Mars Desert Research Station, Utah, which is four hours south from Salt Lake City. However, everyone spoke and behaved as if they were on Mars. Six people lived in a cylindrical two-story building. A former soldier in the Army National Guard, the commander kept the participants on track with a strict schedule that included fixing electrical systems, taking inventory, cleaning up the facilities, and sampling the soil. Klos was given a specific role to create reports for the public. The crew was monitored by the health safety officer, who also checked on their well-being and monitored the levels of solar energy and carbon dioxide.

Klos and his companions had to obtain permission from mission control on Earth before they could go outside in their spacesuits (actually, a coordinator stationed nearby). This person would provide information about weather and winds, and decide how long each person could remain outside of the base. Sometimes, dust storms would roll in and cut off the power supply to the base. This is just like what happened on Mars. Klos could only bathe once per week using two buckets of water. She was fascinated.

Klos says, "This isn't performance art." These are scientific endeavors. Sometimes, people criticize us for role-playing too much. The goal is to live Mars as people will live, so scientists can find out how to make it work for us.

These habitats are located around the world and host simulations that last anywhere from two weeks up to a whole year. NASA's Human Research Program, located at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, runs one of these habitats. Private organizations also fund other facilities. Robert Zubrin, a Brooklyn-born aerospace engineer, runs the habitat in Utah. Klos returned to Utah in 2017 for another mission, and another in Canada's Arctic. Klos participated in a mission to the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). The International MoonBase Alliance is the group that runs the facility, which was founded by Henk Rogers, a Dutch entrepreneur.

HI-SEAS is located at Hawaii's largest island, 8,200 feet above the sea level. It is situated on Mauna Loa volcano. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center will collaborate with the facility to collect information about volcanic caves, and microbes that thrive in these Mars-like environments. HI-SEAS also studies the limitations of carrying heavy spacesuits while doing this kind of work. While it's not difficult for astronauts to hold a screwdriver with one hand while they repair the International Space Station (ISS), it's not impossible for them to climb on Martian rocks to search for microbes.

No background in engineering, science or astronaut training is required to apply for the missions. It's important to find out if ordinary people can live in Mars-like conditions on Earth. After all, the goal of these missions is to send ordinary people into space. The floor area of each habitat in a simulation facility is only 1,200 square feet. This is the equivalent of two apartments placed on top of one another. It's not enough space for six people who are unable to walk around the block.

You must propose a project the leaders consider useful to get a spot on a Mars simulation. A recent participant in HI-SEAS focused on 3-D printing and how to make bricks from volcanic rock. Another looked at hydrogen fuel cells. Another tried different methods to grow hydroponic lettuce. Many psychological research projects are focused on psychological research. They study how different foods, exercises, and smells affect people's moods when they're compressed together in a pressurized capsule.

The preparations for Mars could have positive effects on Earth's life. Research into space travel has paved the way to medical breakthroughs like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). As our climate changes, the data we are gathering about how to survive on solar power, conserve water, and grow plants in dry conditions could prove useful for us at home.

Michaela Musilova (32-year-old astrobiologist) is the director of HI-SEAS. She says she tries to assemble diverse teams and uses the internet to recruit journalists, teachers, artists, and artists such as Klos. Musilova was part of a team that supported the opposition candidate in November 2020's mission. She says, "That made for very fascinating dynamics." Musilova believes that teams are more innovative when they have members from diverse backgrounds. It's great for problem solving and can be a way to combat boredom. People who are excited to spend time on Mars (simulated or real) tend to share certain characteristics, such as a willingness and ability to live in close quarters with strangers, and a desire to explore the future.

Musilova states, "We all have our quirks." Musilova says, "We all make mistakes and can be annoying to others." We go out of our way for people who are having bad days. We can have empathy for someone who is having a bad day." Perhaps the greatest breakthrough in human history is the ability to live together on Mars.