The Mars One project has been canceled due to bankruptcy. Now, other future Mars projects may be in jeopardy as well when potential astronauts find out about a series of tests involving volunteers living for months in a space ship simulator which showed that one of things they’ll need to survive the long journey relatively stress-free is … clowns! Will using clowns also allow NASA to cram a lot more astronauts into the tiny ship?
“These are people that have the ability to pull everyone together, bridge gaps when tensions appear and really boost morale. 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. It’s vital you have somebody who can help everyone get along, so they can do their jobs and get there and back safely. It’s mission critical.”
That’s not exactly a conventional definition of “clowns” but it’s the kind of funny people with the ‘Light’ Stuff that University of Florida anthropologist Jeffrey Johnson concluded will be necessary on long space flights after he spent four years studying scientists and workers at isolated bases in Antarctica. Johnson found that base workers from various nationalities — US, Russian, Polish, Chinese and Indian – worked and played together better when some of the crew members were class clowns, jokesters and funny storytellers.
He’s using those findings to prepare analog astronauts (astronauts who work in ground simulators) for long-mission simulations at NASA’s Human Experimentation Research Analog (HERA) project at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the SIRIUS (Scientific International Research In a Unique terrestrial Station) mission in the NEK analog located in the Institute for Bio-Medical Problems (IBMP) in Russia. (Shouldn’t that be Not-Sirius? Asking for a friend thinking about applying for the clown job.)
“That’s when people start to feel like, ‘I don’t want to play anymore.’”
Leslie DeChurch, a psychologist with the HERA project, describes the circumstances when a clown will come in handy on a long mission. Her research has found that, no matter how long it is, the crew is generally most vulnerable during the third quarter of a mission. On a Mars mission, that would be during the trip home when the fun part is over and there’s still a long way to go. Think about those long stints in the back seat coming home from a childhood vacation listening to your parents arguing and you get the idea on a small scale. DeChurch and Noshir Contractor, a professor of behavioral science at Northwestern also working with HERA, will be testing their models and recommendations on the latest HERA crew which entered the simulator on February 15.
“Is the right stuff still the right stuff for a team that would go to Mars? I think we’re pretty confident that it is not.”
Thanks a lot, Dr. Contractor. What are we going to call the movie about the Mars mission? Clowns in Space starring Will Ferrell and Mellissa McCarthy? Star Shecky? (Ask your grandfather.) Armageddon Laughs? Would David Bowie cringe at Is There Laughs on Mars?
Don’t forget to tip your waitress robots.