As humans embark on the next big voyage into the unknown, there will need to be someone aboard the first Mars-bound spacecraft who can crack a joke.
Travelling to the red planet, astronauts will have to endure a level of isolation unprecedented in space travel, which has been compared to historic trips such Christopher Columbus’s quest for the New World.
To ensure the crew that ultimately embarks on such a mission is ideally suited, Nasa has been investigating the social makeup required to function in such challenging circumstances
It has taken its cues from teams working in isolated conditions such as on fishing camps in Alaska or on expeditions to Antarctica, and one role in particular has emerged as crucial.
“Groups work best when they have somebody who takes on the role of class clown,” said Dr Jeffrey Johnson, a researcher at the University of Florida who has immersed himself in such teams.
“These are people that have the ability to pull everyone together, bridge gaps when tensions appear and really boost morale.”
This is a pattern he has observed repeatedly while working across four summers with teams from Russia, Poland, China and India at the South Pole.
Taking an important historic example, the anthropologist points to Adolf Lindstrom, the cook who accompanied the famous polar explorer Roald Amundsen and was noted for his good humour.
In his diary, Amundsen himself said Lindstrom had “rendered greater and more valuable services to the Norwegian polar expedition than any other man”.
“A Mars mission will need a Lindstrom-like figure, somebody who can break the tension, can bring people together,” said Dr Johnson, who presented his most recent findings about social roles at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Washington DC.
However, he noted that while the clown might have many natural talents, they would need to pull their weight if they were to embark on such an important mission.
“Being funny won’t be enough to land somebody the job,” he said. “They also need to be an excellent scientist and engineer and be able to pass a rigorous training regime.”
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