Gettin’ It On in Space

Every year from October 4–10, the United Nations celebrates World Space Week, and under its banner, astronomy-, science-, and space-related organizations and educational institutions around the world host several hundred events celebrating humanity’s exploration of the universe.  First observed in 1999, I picked up on it in the fall of 2000 as a way to fulfill one of the curriculum requirements that were part of my job as a resident adviser in a university residence hall.  Originally I penned one article per day on every day of Space Week, but in recent years I have spread them out over the month of October.  This is now my tenth year of celebrating Space Week by spreading the word about the discoveries, challenges, and promises of space exploration to a growing circle of friends and family.  Mike Haubrich has been on my distribution list for the past couple of years and has generously offered Quiche Moraine as a forum to reach a wider audience.  Here is the first article in this year’s series.

Greetings, everyone.

So after watching what will surely go down as one of the most epic games in Twins, and even all of baseball, history, it seems a little anticlimactic to sit down and write about the 200-mile high club, but what the hey, it’s for science.

Late in July, my wife and I welcomed our first child, Liam Oran, into the world.  He is a happy and healthy 10 weeks old now, and his presence prompted my wife to suggest today’s topic when I was soliciting suggestions a few weeks ago.  While contemplating the idea of sex in space may invite more than its share of muffled laughter or red faces, for anyone who believes that the future of the human species depends on our ability to colonize outer space and other planets, it is serious business.  Not only are there the challenges of the mechanics surrounding the deed itself, but also challenges dealing with physiology, pregnancy and fetal development, marriage and family dynamics, and basic human well-being.  In short, it is unrealistic to ignore this subject if we ever wish to live anywhere other than the Earth.

Though there have been many explorations of these challenges in science fiction, to this point there is very little in the way of factual evidence to cite when it comes to actual space missions.  With a few notable (and expensive) exceptions, everyone who has ever gone into space has done so under the auspices of a government-funded program, and in this and other countries, there still exists a sizable portion of taxpayers who would find that sort of “research” unsettling or immoral.  Thus there is little actual data regarding sex in space among humans, only a lot of rumor and speculation.

However, given certain basic physical laws (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), one can see how there could be quite a few hurdles to overcome in order to engage in the horizontal (or vertical, or diagonal, or any other directional orientation really) mambo in space without the participants flying off every which way in short order.  Amenities such as hand or footholds, belts, sleeping bags, or something called a “2suit” (invented by science fiction author Vanna Bonta) could mitigate some of this, but it would still take a good deal of practice and acclimation to microgravity in order to do it without risk of injury.  Hopefully once space tourism kicks into gear, and people start going into space for recreational purposes, we will have a bit more to go on than gossip and fertile imaginations.

When it comes to the subject of reproduction in space, there is somewhat more hard data, but all of it involves various animal species, with the only mammals being rats.  Unfortunately, early results are not encouraging.  While the mechanical difficulties of mating can be overcome, and fertilization can occur, baby rats born in space have all exhibited a lack of ability to orient themselves, something that is almost certainly due to the microgravity environment.  Also, it was found that male rats who had been in space who then returned to Earth and mated with females who hadn’t had babies with a wide range of birth defects.  Finally, given the well known physiological effects of long durations in space, such as loss of bone mass, the atrophying of various muscles, and the risks associated with exposure to radiation, it is likely that any children born in space would have a difficult time ever visiting Earth.

These effects could also have consequences for fertility, although anecdotal evidence suggests that due to changes in blood-flow patterns in space, the men could leave their Viagra at home.  In any case, we are very far from where we need to be in order to ensure that a fetus conceived in space could also develop and be delivered there as safely as one can on Earth.

In addition to the physical and biological aspects of sex in space, any discussion of the subject in a human context must include psychological considerations.  Currently NASA has plans on the drawing board to send humans back to the moon and later to Mars for missions of relatively long durations (several months to a few years), and while some have suggested that the role that sexuality will play in such missions can be mitigated by using crews consisting either of a single gender or of married couples, it is clear that any workable mission plan will need to address this explicitly and thoroughly.

Fortunately we already have a few test cases of instances where groups of 8–12 people have been confined to relatively small areas for time periods similar to the missions being planned.  Scientists wintering in Antarctica comprise one group of cases.  There is also the infamous Biosphere 2 experiment from the early 1990s.  Finally, a group called the Mars Society has for several years been running experiments at four Mars Analogue Research Stations, which simulate as far as possible the conditions actual Martian explorers will face.  What have we found from all of this?  Basically, it can be done.  While there will undoubtedly be friction and conflict, sexual or otherwise, among any small group isolated for a long period of time, with good training in communication skills and anger management, as well as developing the ability to keep oneself entertained, any future moon or Mars crew should be able to avoid killing each other.

In my brief foray into the topic of sex in space, I found that the little we know is vastly exceeded by what we do not know, and there appear to be many fruitful paths of research that could help fill the gap.  Whether or not they will actually be pursued is anyone’s guess, but I hope we are nearing the start of the era when getting it on in zero-g is discussed openly and seriously.  Lastly, I suggest that you all check out an episode from season 3 of the History Channel series “The Universe” entitled “Sex in Space”, which provided a lot of interesting material for this article.

History Channel series “The Universe”: (individual episodes can be downloaded from iTunes)
Mars Analogue Research Stations
Biosphere 2

Question: While having an all-female crew for a long duration mission is not a silver bullet for avoiding sexual expression, from what other standpoint might such a decision make sense?

Norman Barrett Wiik as a current graduate student in public policy, a board member for Camp Quest of Minnesota and Camp Quest Inc., and a lifelong enthusiast of space exploration.

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6 Responses to “Gettin’ It On in Space”

  1. October 8th, 2009 at 7:27 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I have a hard time getting past the idea that if anybody issues a grant through NASA on studying the idea of how unmarried consensual adults deal with these aspects of sex in space; the conservatives in Congress will have a collective embolism. They’ll pretend that professional astronauts will naturally, and through God’s guidance, keep their zippers closed and hold it until they get back to earth where they can praise Jesus through sex with their spouses. Vibrators and Fleshlights will also be banned on flights.

  2. October 8th, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Stephen Moore says:

    Also, it was found that male rats who had been in space who then returned to Earth and mated with females who hadn’t had babies with a wide range of birth defects.

    Any info on the rate of defects in the population? And the type of defects? Whilst animal subjects provide an easier means than human subjects of producing many offspring such that these type of data can be gathered, has there been any study of children born to returned astronauts that might even merely hint at such a risk for humans? Seems odd that there would be no post-spacefareing born children. Or is it simply a matter of ‘n < useful data set'?

  3. October 8th, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Jared says:

    Mike, perhaps there should be a funded sex research in space if it results in all of the far right conservatives suffering acute infarctions…

    Seriously, though, the biggest advantage to an all-female crew on long-duration trips would be a lower caloric intake, thus less food required. This might prevent the pregnancy issue, but that’s about all it would solve.

  4. October 9th, 2009 at 3:09 am

    dominich says:

    IIRC there was a sci-fi porn movie a few years ago that hired a vomit comet to film zero-gee “activities”. I imagine they must have learned something!

  5. October 9th, 2009 at 7:05 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    At the very least we should raise the question of post-space-flight children. Are there any? How’s their health? And if not, why not? Do we all select for post-reproductive astronauts / cosmonauts? If humans follow the path of rats, this could put a serious crimp on space exploration.
    As to the how-to of in-space copulation, I have every confidence that folks will find a way, providing, as you suggest, that impotence is not a side-effect. I’d advise a sense of humor for the participants, however, as much is likely to happen that will require that particular lubricant.

  6. October 11th, 2009 at 7:47 am

    Josh Hendrickson says:

    Very interesting. I can honestly say that I’ve never given the reality of this much thought. We all see it in Sci-Fi movies and shows, but I never actually thought about the reality of it.

    The rat thing I found very interesting. Is that covered on the episode of “The Universe?” One of my favorite Sunday shows btw…

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