Getting humans to Mars will be spectacularly difficult.
It will be the furthest humans have ever traveled by around 54.2 million kilometers (87.2 million miles). On the way, astronauts will constantly be bombarded by ridiculous amounts of radiation. They're also at risk of everything from losing bone density as they travel to just plain crash-landing on the surface of Mars when they arrive.
That's before you've even begun to look at the human side of the mission.
It would take around eight months (at least) to get to Mars, followed by eight months back. During that time, astronauts would be the furthest from Earth any humans have ever been, and communication would be delayed by up to 20 minutes as they approach the Red Planet. Even when communication was delayed by 50 seconds to the ISS as a test, NASA found an increase in stress in their astronauts and a decrease in their wellbeing and performance.
Astronauts will be trapped on a small spaceship for over a year with a few other astronauts and very limited communication with Earth, completely isolated in the depths of space if everything goes according to plan. Even a successful Mars trip sounds like the setup to a horror movie.
So selecting crew members will be key to the mission's success. In short, an irritable, stressed, and homesick crew might make mistakes that a happy crew would not.
One of NASA's advisors, Professor Jeffrey Johnson, studied isolated research expeditions to Antarctica and four groups of "astronauts" who took part in NASA's Human Exploration Research Analog, which hosts volunteers in a lab designed to replicate the isolation of space missions, in order to advise NASA on who to recruit for such a mission.
Following his research, Johnson has suggested that if we're sending humans to Mars, it's "critical" to send a comedian.
“Groups work best when they have somebody who takes on the role of class clown,” Johnson, of the University of Florida, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting. “These are people that have the ability to pull everyone together, bridge gaps when tensions appear and really boost morale.”
Johnson observed that people who take on the role of comedian in these isolated groups are willing to do things others wouldn't in order to broker peace, including being the butt of jokes and pranks. One clown he observed in Antarctica, The Guardian reports, even endured his colleagues holding a funeral and burial for him as a joke during one isolated winter.
“We can all think of the person at work who fulfills this role, who makes us laugh and makes the job more enjoyable," Johnson said. "People like being around them."
Jokers, Johnson found, act as peace-brokers when needed and help people bond, making the whole team work more smoothly.
He told the conference that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen saw the importance of taking a clown when he set off to explore the South Pole in 1910. He appointed chef Adolf Lindstrøm for his ability to keep people's spirits up in order to keep the group together during the trip.
Someone like this will be desperately needed on a long journey to another planet.
“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," Johnson explained. "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.”
[H/T: The Guardian]