Having recruited pilots, aerospace engineers, electronics technicians and meteorologists for decades, Nasa is turning the attention of its human resource department on an unexpected profession — natural clowns. As it prepares for the era of long-haul spaceflight, it confronts a problem that has provided the plot for hundreds of science fiction stories: How do humans trapped in the tiny cabin of a spacecraft hang together for months or years, and not attack each other? The ideal solution (seen to best advantage in Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) is to put them to sleep. But neither ageing nor waking and sleeping are understood well enough for us to interfere with them. And besides, a cheaper solution is already available — humour.
It has been observed that teams work better together if one of the members has a sense of humour. A bit of chaffing cuts through formality, and a joke helps to break the tension when people have serious differences, often by diverting attention from the point at contention. The capacity for humour is innate, and researchers are now helping Nasa to identify the traits that would let it zero in on the joker in the pack. The world’s premier space agency has made it clear that a good line of gags won’t automatically qualify a candidate for the job. The person must also be able to read the space altimeter, do some extra-vehicular activity, repair the leaking thingamajig, and generally lend a shoulder.
However, it must be pointed out that these pioneering humorists will not be the first clowns in space. In the popular imagination, that honour must go to the cast of the 1988 cult classic, the Chiodo Brothers’ Killer Klowns from Outer Space. As always, reality is doomed to toss fretfully in the wake of the human imagination.