Let's Talk About Sex in Space
While there has been a human presence in space since 1961, the topic of cosmic coitus continues to be woefully under-examined.
Illustration: © Leif Peng
This is the first in a three-part series about sex and gender issues in space. Read about reproduction and sexism in space.
Now that Earth has had a co-ed space station in orbit for over three decades, the obvious question must be raised once again: What goes on behind closed hatches? Have any of the astronauts ever taken things to the next level?
There have, for the record, been no official, confirmed reports of inappropriate behavior, consensual or otherwise, among Shuttle, Soyuz, Shenzhou, or ISS crew members. Yet these official denials haven't stopped minds on Earth from speculating about how those in orbit might be passing some of their most private time.
Imaginations were set aflame in 1992 when it was reported that Jan Davis and Mark Lee, two astronauts who went to orbit aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor, had secretly married nine months prior to their mission. The deployment of husband and wife on the same mission was a first for NASA—the space agency subsequently forbade such pairings—and immediately prompted speculation that they may have been the first couple in history to consummate their marriage free from the surly bonds of Earth.
While there has been a human presence in space since 1961, the topic of sex in space continues to be woefully under-examined. There are several reasons for this, one of them being that most manned missions to space have not been long enough in duration to push NASA to seriously address the question. When you're just trying to figure out how to survive in a uniquely hostile environment, "knowing in the Biblical sense" sits pretty low on the list of pressing scientific questions that need to be answered. But not for long.
"I do think there is a time when sexuality in space is going to have to be addressed," said Paul Root Wolpe, the Director of Emory University's Center for Ethics and a senior bioethicist at NASA. "I do not know if NASA has an official policy on sex in space, [but] there will be a time when NASA needs to make some policies or understandings about those kinds of relationships. There is a point where the length of time [on a mission] becomes part of the question of whether or not it's fair to deprive people of this aspect of being human. I'm just not sure it's time yet."
Aside from the lack of urgent scientific reasons to really test human libido and sexual behavior in orbit, the simple fact of the matter is that body-to-body docking in microgravity is probably not as orgasmic as we might imagine it to be. In the first place, there are significant logistical difficulties in orchestrating the deed, and this alone, Wolpe suggested, might be reason enough to dissuade astronauts from unofficial experimentation.
"A lot of people think that sex in microgravity will be great because by losing gravity you can move in ways you can't terrestrially. The [scientists] who've thought about this aren't so sure about that at all," he said. "One of the things that gravity helps us do is stay together, so sex in microgravity might actually be more difficult because you're going to have to make sure that you're always holding each other so you don't drift apart. It might be a lot more challenging and a lot less fulfilling than most people think."
The gravity on Mars—about one third that of Earth's—"is light enough to do what you want [and] heavy enough to make it interesting," wrote Arthur C. Clarke.
Even if the logistical difficulties of space sex can be settled, there's still the problem that microgravity makes sex, well, significantly less sexy.
Astronauts tend to sweat more in space, and decreased blood pressure could make it more difficult for males to hold up their end of the mission. As for the female side of things, the jury is still out on whether microgravity is a bane or a boon to boobs. While one astronaut trainer has confirmed that bras are in fact worn in space, this is usually during the intense exercise regimens that astronauts are submitted to. Beyond that, it's a matter of personal preference.
All of these limitations have nonetheless failed to tame humanity's raunchier cosmic fantasies. In The Hammer of God, a 1993 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke, the author considers the pros and cons of various solar system locations for cosmic coitus, noting that the novelty of zero gravity in free space soon wears off, while the gravity of the moon makes you bounce all over.
The gravity on Mars, however, which is about one third that of Earth's, writes the sci-fi legend, "is light enough to do what you want [and] heavy enough to make it interesting."
"Both the pleasures and problems of zero-gravity sex have been greatly exaggerated," Clarke wrote in 1982's 2010: Odyssey Two. But he looked forward to the sexual innovations which would result from taking sex to space. "Weightlessness will bring about new forms of erotica. About time, too."
Clarke's ruminations are tentatively supported by American astronaut Ron Garan, who has spent a total of six months at the ISS—and swears he's still a space virgin.
"I don't know [what sex in space] is like, of course," he says, laughing. "I assume it would be just as enjoyable as it is on Earth. Weightlessness is liberating—being able to have complete freedom of movement to go wherever you want, [you can] be in any position you want."
The positions Garan is referring to are solely work related—reaching, exercising, fixing a space telescope. But in 1989, a document allegedly released by NASA appeared to reference research involving positions of a more intimate nature. Known as 12-571-3570, this document allegedly detailed the results of an experiment aboard STS-75, wherein couples engaged in various sexual acts to determine which were most effective for reproductive purposes.
The twelve approaches that were tested included strapping the couples together and placing them inside a giant inflatable tunnel, both of which understandably made it hard for the astronauts to get aroused. The report concluded that "the effectiveness of the system was validated through twelve experiments," finding that the use of an elastic band to keep the couples in place was the optimal method.
Researching sex in space "is simply not a priority—there are too many more pressing issues about health and function in space."
The study made its rounds on the internet for several years, eventually prompting NASA to respond a decade later when French science writer Pierre Kohler cited it as fact in his book The Final Mission. The whole thing was obviously a hoax, said NASA, given that STS-75 didn't launch until 1996, seven years after the paper was released. Perhaps this is for the better, as the acts described in the document sound far more uncomfortable and awkward than pleasurable.
Nevertheless, this problem was tackled by the late novelist Vanna Bonta, who developed the 2suit specifically for the purpose of helping astronauts perform the proverbial orbital insertions. When two people wearing the 2suit come together in microgravity, the suit allows them to effectively create one large sleeping bag, solving the problem of drifting apart so that they can focus on their cosmic kamasutra or whatever it is they're into.
Unfortunately for those who are looking to the stars to spice up their sex life, the odds that research into sex in space will find funding in the near future is pretty remote, at least at NASA. "[Researching sex] is simply not a priority—there are too many more pressing issues about health and function in space," said Wolpe. "Perhaps a private space agency might get funding."
Some private spaceflight companies have already been solicited for the purpose of making porn movies in space, including Virgin Galactic, which turned down a $1 million offer from an unnamed source to make an adult film in orbit. (The irony of this particular company declining to take sex to space is lost on nobody.)
In Space, No One Can Hear You Cream
Although it seems that what happens in space is staying in space, this doesn't necessarily mean the ISS is full of sexual prudes. One Russian cosmonaut interviewed by writer Mary Roach told her, "My friend asks me, 'How are you making sex in space?' I say, 'By hand!'" In a 2012 Reddit AMA hosted by Ron Garan, the astronaut assuaged fears that astronauts can never find opportunities to self-stimulate on the space station. Despite the overall lack of privacy on board, apparently the ISS is still large enough to find some occasional "quiet time," he acknowledged.
I asked Garan to clarify. "I can only speak for myself, but we're professionals," he said. "It's in the realm of what is possible, but the missions are so busy and intense, that it's normal to just focus on the mission."
If we can take Garan at his word, it sounds like masturbation at 260 miles up isn't a problem if astronauts are so inclined—and this is a good thing. Numerous studies have shown that masturbation can be good for the individual's psychological health, but there are physical benefits to self-pleasure as well.
Marjorie Jenkins, a NASA advisor who serves as Chief Scientific Officer at the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health, noted that decreased ejaculation can potentially be a contributing factor to prostatitis, the inflammation and infection of the prostate. (Her own findings on the matter are part of a peer-reviewed paper she co-authored last year that explored reproductive health in space.)
When men ejaculate, about one-third of their semen is secreted by the prostate. This prostate fluid is essential for the survival and vitality of sperm. If men ejaculate too infrequently, there is a risk of bacterial build up in prostate, leading to a painful infection. While the discomfort induced by genitourinary infections (such as prostatitis in men or a urinary tract infection in women) may seem trivial compared with the innumerable other risks of space, they have already proven to be an important variable to consider when planning long duration space flights.
The most serious space-based genitourinary problem on record befell Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Vasyutin in 1985. While on the Salyut-7 space station, Vasyutin, then 35 years old, developed acute prostatitis, a complication that led to extreme fever, nausea and painful urination, forcing him to return to Earth prematurely, only 65 days into a six-month mission. Between 1981 and 1998, astronauts reported 23 cases of genitourinary problems, according to NASA. While this is a relatively small number given that 508 astronauts flew during this time, it is an issue which could have perhaps been tempered had astronauts managed to find a little more "quiet time."
The Social Dynamics
Besides the potential discomfort of sex in space (and the risks of pregnancy associated with it), there's another reason self-pleasure looks preferable to actual, astronaut-on-astronaut action: the simple fact that human sexuality is staggeringly complex. It is a phenomenon that is both physiological and psychological in nature, something that is simultaneously both a biological imperative and a social construction. Although there have been a handful of studies conducted on various aspects of gender interactions, these haven't focused on the intimate kind. That means that taking sexual behavior to space is a risky variable to toss into an already high-risk situation.
"Gender has been studied. Sex is a different story," said Wolpe. "The ethical issues [of taking sex to space] are not so much around the act itself, but the implications. There's a whole series of questions we'd want to ask about what it would mean to actually have two members of the crew actually have sex in space in terms of what their relationship would be and what their relationship would be in relation to the other crew members. How would it affect people psychologically?"
"Even though [the astronauts] are living up there for months at a time, the relationship is not 'we're friends and roommates hanging out.'
Understanding how sex impacts small-group dynamics in isolation is a crucial component to its successful integration as a variable into missions to space. When small crews are forced to spend months or years in close confinement, figuring out ways to tolerate one another's presence and cooperate can prove to be very taxing. Having two love birds along for a ride might only complicate things further.
As Wolpe points out, astronauts and their minders are determined to keep relationships strictly professional. The risks of not doing so were on display for the whole planet to see in 2007, when astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested for attempting to kidnap an Air Force captain, Colleen Shipman. Nowak considered Shipman to be a rival for the affections of fellow astronaut Bill Oefelein.
"Even though [the astronauts] are living up there for months at a time, the relationship is not 'we're friends and roommates hanging out,' but 'we are highly trained professionals doing a job,'" said Wolpe.
If astronauts were having sex in orbit (for science, of course), relationships between those astronauts and their colleagues would likely need to be carefully studied and policed, he said. "One might assume right now that everyone in the crew is not going to be having sex with everyone else in the crew. There would be particular relationship structures in the beginning, especially if you want to do it scientifically."
Still, high pressure situations don't necessarily preclude sexual activity; in fact, the opposite may be true. While research into the links between stress and sexual arousal is fairly limited, a handful of studies suggest that while too much or too little acute or chronic stress may impair sexual arousal, a moderate level of stress may actually be helpful in getting the juices flowing. And in those instances where high stress levels appear to be linked to the impairment of genital arousal, there does not yet seem to be any link between psychological arousal and stress.
Informal field tests on Earth seem to buoy these results: between 1989 and 2006, Australian researchers documented seven pregnancies at Antarctic research stations, environments that are frequently used as analogs for space due to their isolation and moderate stress levels. This staggering number suggests that dangerous environs alone aren't significant deterrents for their horny inhabitants. NASA is well aware of this.
While the space agency does not have an official policy on space sex, instead relying on its somewhat ambiguous code of conduct for these matters, there will likely come a time when sex in space will have to be explicitly addressed and confronted as a methodological factor in future missions.
Studies have shown that gender integration on missions tends to be a positive experience, especially when this involves married couples. Although the vast majority of astronauts are married and several astronauts have married one another, only one mission to space had a married couple flying together. And this may have been by accident.
Jan Davis and Mark Lee were married in secret the year prior to their mission in 1992, a move which violated the NASA regulations prohibiting couples on missions. Davis and Lee were allowed to fly together only because by the time their marriage was discovered, it was too late to train replacements for the mission. Although the rule banning married couples flying together still stands at NASA, Garan thinks that as the space agency reaches further into the solar system, a revision may be warranted.
"Statistically there are quite a few astronauts who are married couples and I think it would be appropriate to have those couples on long missions," he said.
Garan, who is married, said he wouldn't mind having his significant other along for the ride, if for no other reason, he says half-jokingly, than some alone time in the ISS cupola, the station module that boasts the largest windows in space.
"You never get tired of looking at the Earth from the windows. About once a week we get a video conference with our family and I would typically bring the laptop in to the cupola so I can share the view." He added: "It's definitely one of the most romantic views you could ever have."
"Statistically there are quite a few astronauts who are married couples and I think it would be appropriate to have those couples on long missions."
Research suggests that having married couples on long duration missions in space analog environments tends to temper sexual competition and provide an air of familiarity amongst crew members, which can be very beneficial in high-stress situations. And yet, throwing marital problems in the mix could also bring unintended consequences.
"When we leave low earth orbit and are leaving the Earth for many months at a time, I think whether the question [of bringing your spouse along] is valid and something we'll have to address," said Garan. "Now that brings other problems: not all relationships last. Imagine a breakup on a 3 year mission to Mars."
Indeed, whether or not Davis and Lee, NASA's only married astronauts to have flown together, managed to consummate their marriage during their space honeymoon, they didn't manage to keep it together on Earth: they divorced in 1998.
For those concerned with the future of space travel—and perhaps the future of the human race—the potentially perilous unknowns surrounding sex in space aren't reason to abstain; they're an argument for probing deeper.
"[Sex] is a part of the human experience and needs to be accounted for eventually," said Garan. "We need to look at life on our planet from a different perspective. It has a lot of facets to it. It's taking a long term or big picture view and realizing that our sphere of influence is a lot bigger than we think. We're just beginning to scratch the surface on how that could propel us into a more positive trajectory. The possibilities are enormous."
Read and watch documentaries about humanity's encounter with outer space in Motherboard's Spaced Out series.