Space comedy has a surprisingly long history. The first fictional work to depict space travel was a satirical travelog written in the 2nd century by Lucian of Samosata, who used the story of stumbling into a war between alien empires over control of Venus to parody the exaggerated tales told by other Roman writers about their travels in the empire and beyond. Today, space remains a fruitful setting for comedy with books like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, movies like Galaxy Quest, and shows like Futurama maintaining strong fanbases.
Comedy as a strategy for space science communication is not quite as old, but still has a long pedigree stretching back to the beginning of the space age. Pranks and stunts in space, from Alan Shepard’s golfing on the moon to Scott Kelly scaring his International Space Station colleagues in a gorilla suit, have served to humanize astronauts and helped to connect people to the sometimes unfathomably distant world of space exploration.
Official space agency communications have also sought to incorporate comedy over the years. Twitter accounts for space probes are regularly written in the first person, anthropomorphizing their subjects, and using humor and subjective language to make space exploration a more human endeavor. A post-mission analysis conducted by science communicators working for the European Space Agency (Mignone et al. (2015)) showed how the use of anthropomorphization, alongside a series of animated shorts, with the Rosetta mission helped members of the public connect with the Rosetta and Philae probes and made the science goals of the mission more accessible. NASA frequently uses pop culture events to communicate its mission as well, with annual posts about “Black Hole Friday” on the day after Thanksgiving and a well-worn infographic comparing the size of the International Space Station to a football field on Super Bowl Sunday gaining huge audiences year after year.
There are of course drawbacks to the use of informal language in space science communication. A long-running series of articles from the Jerusalem Post has become notorious for using increasingly absurd units of measurement to describe newly discovered Near Earth Objects, including “145 horses,” “18 walruses,” and “6 Darth Vaders”. While the persistence of the series demonstrates that the headlines drive web traffic, there is a danger that the larger media trend of drawing undue attention to small asteroids passing the Earth at safe distances creates a “boy who cried wolf” effect that degrades society’s ability to take real asteroid threats seriously.
There are also situations where anthropomorphizing spacecraft or incorporating comedy into mission communications are best avoided. Examples include the Double Asteroid Redirect Test mission which involved deliberately crashing a space probe into an asteroid as a test of planetary defense techniques. Traumatizing the public by cultivating an emotional connection with the doomed DART spacecraft prior to its intentional destruction would not likely have engendered public support for such an important project.
Comedy as a method for telling stories about space and space as a framework for comedy both have a long and storied past. When used correctly, comedy can be an incredibly valuable tool for making the vast and impersonal cosmos accessible to the general public.