Nasa is looking for a ‘jokers’ or ‘class clown’ to boost morale on a human mission to Mars. A sense of humour will be vital for any team to keep morale high on a two-year trip to Mars which could happen in the 2030s.
The joker role will be tested in NASA’s group mission simulations at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.
Jeffrey Johnson, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville is advising NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog, a project which looks at how teams can cope with extreme periods of isolation.
He addressed the the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual conference on ‘Building a Winning Team for Missions to Mars’.
An anthropologist at the University of Florida is making the case that long space missions, like a crewed trip to Mars, would require crew members with pronounced senses of humor to build social bridges and defuse tension at a perilous distance from Earth.
“These are people that have the ability to pull everyone together, bridge gaps when tensions appear and really boost morale,” said Jeffrey Johnson, who’s working with NASA to study the importance of humor during long spaceflights, in an interview with theGuardian. “When you’re living with others in a confined space for a long period of time, such as on a mission to Mars, tensions are likely to fray.”
Professor Johnson said: ‘Groups work best when they have somebody who takes on the role of class clown
But he added: ‘Being funny won’t be enough to land somebody the job. They also need to be an excellent scientist and engineer and be able to pass a rigorous training regime.’ Professor Johnson has studied isolated groups of people in extreme environments including Russian, Chinese Indian and Polish explorers based in Antarctica.
He has also looked at historical examples. Professor Johnson said that the reason Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen succeeded where Captain Scott failed in reaching the South Pole was because the Norwegians had a jolly ‘clown’ figure on their team.
‘There are people who are loving and laughable and jovial and endearing, and therefore bring people together. But others who are cruel. When I worked at the South Pole station there was lots of cruel behaviour. There’s a difference between button pushing and being funny. It’s better to become a mascot – get taken in by the group and loved.
Nasa plans to fly astronauts around the moon in 2023 as part of its preparation for a crewed mission to Mars as early as 2033. The Russian and Chinese space agencies have proposed human missions from 2040 onwards. Private ventures such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX have also set their sights on the planet.
On average, the red planet is 140m miles from Earth and the travel time one way is around eight months. The distance alone is expected to take a psychological toll, but astronauts must also face a time delay in communications of up to 20 minutes each way. In an emergency, there will be no time to call mission control: the crew are effectively on their own.
Johnson is now working with Nasa to explore whether clowns and other characters are crucial for the success of long space missions. So far he has monitored four groups of astronauts who spent 30 to 60 days in the agency’s mock space habitat, the Human Exploration Research Analog, or Hera, in Houston, Texas.
“We now want to see if these types of informal role dynamics function similarly in space-simulated environments,” Johnson said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington DC. Early results suggest they do, he said.
Johnson, who also studied isolated salmon fishers in Alaska, found that clowns were often willing to be the butt of jokes and pranks.