That dirty old space geek Keith Olbermann recently used the top of his show to ask the eternal question: do astronauts knock anti-gravity boots on the space station? As his guest, Franklin Institute astronomer Derrick Pitts, points out, the opportunities for intimacy are few, but they’re there, especially in the Russian side of the mansion-sized station.
Which begs the question: Did we really lose the sex space race?
Given NASA’s prudeness and privacy about the matter, it’s not out of the question that the Russians, arguably running a more scrappy and informal operation (they’ve brought vodka up there) and in charge of the more intimate sections of the space station, beat us to it. Witness STS-131 shuttle commander Alan Poindexter responding to a query in Tokyo last week about personal relationships: “We don’t have them and we won’t,” he said. “We are a group of professionals.”
But given our eventual goals of colonizing planets like Mars, shouldn’t part of that professional capacity involve research into hitting the zero-G spot? Logic would dictate so. But while there have been rumors and hoaxes about rumors abound of microgravity hanky-panky, there have been no documented cases of human-to-human docking.
For its part, the Russian space program, followed by rumors of sexual relations between cosmonauts since the time of Mir, has also vehemently denied cosmic coupling.
But there’s are good reasons why this is just a case of kissing and not telling, starting with those laid out by NASA in a 1985 report, “Living Aloft: Human Requirements for Extended Spaceflight”:
There is little basis for predicting sexual behavior in space. On the one hand, the periods of deprivation are likely to be so long that otherwise effective internal restraints may lose their effectiveness. Also, space travel can be very exciting, and a high state of excitement or arousal can fan sexual passions (Berscheid and Walster,1978).
Why it hasn’t happened yet (maybe)
From a practical standpoint, odds are against it. Apart from the well-known physical challenges of interfacing in space, some have pointed out the ethical issues that come with conceiving a child in space, without knowledge of the impact zero gravity or radiation might have on an embryo.
But most pressing of all the reasons against it are the emotional scars that a sexual relationship can leave on a small group of astronauts. The NASA manual points directly at the very worldly matter of jealousy.
bq. …there is at least some evidence that, within some small social systems, there develops social norms (i.e., shared expectations regarding appropriate attitudes and behaviors) which discourage members from choosing one another for sexual liaisons. Members of these systems seem to recognize that endogamous choices can fan jealousies and reduce privacy to a dangerously low level. The findings are tentative, however, and come from kibbutzim (Talmon, 1964) and residential colleges (DeLamater, 1974), which maintain relatively permeable boundaries and thereby make exogamous choices possible. Such expectations do not develop within all small social systems, for within the Navy, shipboard pregnancies have become a problem (Adams, 1980).
And let’s remember what kind of people astronauts are. “People who are professionally very motivated and goal-oriented do not need sex as an emotional release,” Lyubov Serova, a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP), a leading Russian research institute in the field of space medicine and biology, told Space.com. “A person who might experience such problem in flight will most likely be a passenger on a spacecraft — a journalist, a politician or just a tourist.”
That would leave this particular space record to commercial spaceflight, and make the name Virgin Galactic even more comical.
Solo missions and astronaut couples
For the ones working, there just isn’t much time for sex. Astronauts are busy managing the station, looking out the window, and conducting experiments in somewhat tight quarters.
History Channel reports on sex in space on the space station:
Then again, why not sexual experiments, even the informal ones? Astronauts are human, and life in space can get both stressful and boring. Even if sex isn’t essential to life, their work involves intense interaction and cooperation with each other over long periods of time. For the Mars 500 project, which has placed half a dozen men in isolation and under scrutiny to simulate a 500-day trip to Mars, researchers have prohibited women. But women and men frequently co-mingle aboard the ISS. In April, more women were on board than ever before, thanks to the arrival of the STS-131 crew (the one Poindexter led). Just look at how happy they are:
When they do get personal time, and a bit of privacy, reason would suggest they might at least turn toward self-pleasure. A flight surgeon once advised Apollo astroanuts to “self-stim” to prevent prostate infections. One Russian cosmonaut interviewed by writer Mary Roach discussed the topic, as Boing Boing mentioned. “My friend asks me, ‘How are you making sex in space?’ I say, ‘By hand!’”
A video tour of the International Space Station
And when they’re not in space, they’re certainly finding ways to rendezvous. Consider the case of astronauts Bill Oefelein and Lisa Nowak, who attempted to kidnap Oefelein’s girlfriend.
I couldn’t track down NASA’s astronaut code of conduct – reportedly created in 2007 in response to the Nowak case – but there’s this poster:
“We will retain professional standards … in our relationships” is the most it requires, and all that it needs to say. No other space regulations, including the U.N.’s space law regime, make any stipulations about space sex either. An older NASA manual aims directly at the matter, and sounds wise:
Further research is necessary to discover patterns of interaction within all-female and mixed-sex crews, and to ensure that crewmembers are flexible and tolerant in their dealings with members of the opposite sex. Moreover, means must be sought to minimize the potentially disruptive effects of pairing-off and to ensure that sexual expression assumes acceptable forms.
Sexual expression, acceptable forms: the vagueness is delicious. The stakes are high, the manual continues:
Sexual bonds of any kind are potentially disruptive because Jealousies may arise as the result of other crewmembers “pairing off”. In addition, a terminated intimate relationship which proves merely painful under normal conditions could prove devastating under conditions of isolation and confinement.
The best deterrence, NASA points out,
There is little basis for predicting sexual behavior in space. On the one hand, the periods of deprivation are likely to be so long that otherwise effective internal restraints may lose their effectiveness. Also, space travel can be very exciting, and a high state of excitement or arousal can fan sexual passions (Berscheid and Walster,1978). On
Married or dating astronauts would seem to be the best candidates for hitting the zero G-spot. But since astronauts N. Jan Davis and Mark C. Lee were married in secret before their flight to space on STS-47 in 1992 (they’ve since divorced), NASA has prohibited married couples from traveling on the same mission. Davis and Lee, by the way, wouldn’t comment on what they did or did not do in space.
But with NASA’s skittishness about cosmic coitus, perhaps our best hope lies in the other astronauts on board the Space Station, from countries where the libidinous impulses have so often seemed more like super novae than black holes: the Russians, the Italians and the Japanese. If not for them – guided by our beautiful post Cold War spirit of galactic cooperation – whither our hope for the future of mankind?