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Captain Scott lost race to South Pole because he didn't have 'class clown' in his team, scientists say

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 15/02/2019 Henry Bodkin
a man riding skis down a snow covered mountain: NASA scientists have come up with a previously overlooked explanation why the British expedition was beaten by Rauld Amundsen’s Norwegian team © Robert Falcon Scott/Scott Polar Research Institute/PA NASA scientists have come up with a previously overlooked explanation why the British expedition was beaten by Rauld Amundsen’s Norwegian team

The reasons for Captain Scott’s heroic failure to become the first to conquer the South Pole have excited fevered debate for more than a century.

Was the British expedition beaten by Rauld Amundsen’s Norwegian team by just over a month because of unfavourable weather; did they mismanage their supplies; was it the failure of the relief dogs to turn up that ultimately sealed Scott’s icy fate on the long return march?

Rauld Amundsen

Rauld Amundsen
© PA

All these undoubtedly played a role, but now NASA scientists have come up with a previously overlooked explanation: unlike the Norwegians, Scott didn’t have a joker in his team.

Scientists researching the ideal group dynamic for a manned mission to Mars have identified the crucial role of a “class clown” for relieving tension and providing a focal point in high-pressure situations.

a group of people walking in the snow: Captain Scott’s heroic failure was because he did not have a joker on his team, scientists have said © Robert Falcon Scott/Scott Polar Research Institute/PA Captain Scott’s heroic failure was because he did not have a joker on his team, scientists have said

The insight was inspired by the records of Amundsen’s successful bid for the Pole, and in particular the praise heaped on the expedition’s jovial cook, Adolf Lindstrom.

Professor Jeff Johnson, from the university of Florida, said: “He was viewed by others as a great entertainer who helped maintain spirits and moral over the long austral winter.

“Amundsen wrote in his diary that “he has 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.

Israeli analog astronauts start their mission on the D-MARS Project on February 18, 2018, in cooperation with the Israel Space Agency, which simulates life on Mars by performing several scientific experiments and staying in the D-MARS (Desert Mars Analog Ramon Station) which is built in an isolated desert area south of Mitzpe Ramon, in the Israeli Negev desert, chosen for its similarities to Mars in terms of geology, aridity, and isolation. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA        (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty Israeli analog astronauts start their mission on the D-MARS Project on February 18, 2018, in cooperation with the Israel Space Agency, which simulates life on Mars by performing several scientific experiments and staying in the D-MARS (Desert Mars Analog Ramon Station) which is built in an isolated desert area south of Mitzpe Ramon, in the Israeli Negev desert, chosen for its similarities to Mars in terms of geology, aridity, and isolation. / AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

“This is something that NASA is taking seriously and looking to incorporate into their strategy,” he added.

A large man who rarely left ship other than to indulge in his beloved pastime of ptarmigan hunting, Lindstrom was nevertheless a stalwart of Amundsen’s many expeditions, credited with helping his crewmates through their “polar nerves” with his tireless humour.

The Norwegian team arrived at the geographical south pole on 14th December 1911 and, unlike the pursuing British team, who arrived on 17th January 1912, made it safely back to their ship.

Professor Johnson helped pioneer the science of group dynamics from observing teams operating in the South Pole over more than four years, as well as researching the pioneering arctic expeditions.

He is now contributing to a NASA project to incorporate his “class clown” insights into selection of a manned mission to reach the red planet at some point in the next 25 years.

Photos taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity during its Mars journey [New York Daily News]

Astronauts on such a mission are likely to be away from Earth for at least three years.

“These roles are informal, they emerge within the group, but the interesting thing is that if you have the right combination the group does very well” he said.

“And if you don’t, the group does very badly.”

The class clown theory is now being tested in a series of experiments whereby at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, where four-man teams are isolated for periods ranging from 30 to 120 days in a mock space environment.

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 27:
Shown is a view of the International Space Station flight control room inside the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Center at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center on August 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images) © Getty HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 27: Shown is a view of the International Space Station flight control room inside the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Center at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center on August 27, 2013 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A parallel NASA project is also analysing transcripts of conversations aboard the International Space Station to gain better insights into ideal team dynamics.

The agency has said it plans to send the first manned mission to Mars within the next 25 years.

Elon Musk, the SpaceX founder, has said it will be possible to create a city on the planet with a million inhabitants within the next 50 years.

However, a number of studies have predicted that with current technology the physical demands of a manned trip to Mars would be prohibitive.

Professor Johnson said NASA’s next talk would be to come up with a set of tests capable of identifying the potential for applicant astronauts to use humour in high-stress situations.

Professor Johnson added: “It’s pretty universal. It doesn’t matter whether you are Russian, Polish, Chinese, Indian. Group dynamics happen in very similar ways across all human groups.

NASA is also looking at wearable sensors that keep track of social interactions and provide instant feedback when conflict happens.

The research is being discussed at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington DC.

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