Sex in Space?

Sex in space? What would it be like, floating weightlessly in the throes of passion? Can it be done? Has it happened already?

Anyone familiar with the exploits of various space explorers in science fiction would assume that sex will be a likely component of the human presence in space. Sexuality, then, should be a prime candidate for research to clarify its potential impact on human beings in the isolated, confined, and hazardous environment of space. Will sex have only detrimental effects on crew performance and mission success, as some space scientists have suggested? Or can it have a more positive effect, as it does in our more familiar living and working environments here on Earth?

Although being in space is often glamorized -- it has even been described as a spiritual experience by some who've seen Earth from 200 miles above, it is extremely stressful work. Recent studies by Italian researchers, for instance, have found that levels of the sex hormone testosterone temporarily decrease in male astronauts while in outer space. They also experience a decrease in sexual drive or libido. These effects, however, appear to return to normal levels within 15 days after returning to Earth, although the cause is not clearly understood.

These effects highlight the probability that space will have some kind of impact on sexual functioning, much as it has profound effects on the human body as a whole, most notably the deconditioning of the cardiovascular and large-muscle systems and other detrimental effects on bones and the immune system. Deconditioning is the process that the body goes through to adapt to weightlessness, and is the same thing that happens to us if we stop exercising for a prolonged period of time -- we get weaker. The psychological and social effects could be just as important, given that extended stays in space have been described as prolonged periods of boredom punctuated with brief periods of stark terror if something unexpected happens.

Research on sex in space, however, has been largely ignored so far by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on our short space shuttle missions. When asked about it by the media, such as when Jan Davis and Mark Lee, the first married couple, were to fly together on the shuttle Endeavor in 1992, the agency claims that they are not interested in the private lives of their astronauts. But, even if we ignore, for example, the use of drugs and alcohol, for which testing in many industries has become common, we might assume that NASA is, at least, "interested" in it and a host of other lifestyle issues, such as homosexuality.

Others have claimed that these women and men are "professionals," and as such are not concerned about sex as we mere mortals are. In addition, they say there is a lack of privacy that would preclude any sexual activity from taking place, with most (but not all) areas covered by video cameras. Will that change with the advent of the International Space Station in the next few years and the expected two to three-year Mars mission later on? NASA denies any interest in outer space sex, saying they are not interested in the personal private lives of astronauts. But NASA certainly interested in other personal factors in astronauts' lives, their medical and psychological functioning for example. Why research one and not the other private area? On earth, astronauts form relationships, get married, and have children. Won't this also happen in space?

The short answer is: NASA assumes that our astonauts, as all-American heroes, should not be sullied by sex. In contrast, I argue that astronauts, as sexual human beings, will have sexual experiences in various space settings, even if, in the unlikely event, they have not yet done so. I would also argue that we can expect the whole of what it means to be human, including our sexuality, to go with us into the frontier of space. If we are choosing the best and the brightest (mostly young) professionals and the healthiest individuals -- physically, psychologically, and otherwise -- to be our emissaries to the cosmos, how can we expect that they will be healthy in every respect except sexually?

So what would sex be like in space? Scientists don't yet know the answer to this, although some individual astronauts probably do. Of course, those who do know will not tell us -- nor can they, given the politics of sex that surround them. NASA is extremely reluctant to discuss the sexuality issue, in part because the U.S. Congress is composed of too many antisexual -- and sometimes anti-space. Too many politicians would pounce on any mention of sex in outer space and use it to derail the human space program for their own political agendas. Small wonder NASA avoids any mention of sex in outer space.

So do we know anything about sex in space? Science writer Isaac Asimov was probably the first to conjecture about what sex would be like in the weightless environment of space. In addition to translating complex scientific ideas into everyday language for the general public, Asimov was a prolific science fiction writer. His powers of imagination, along with the scientific knowledge needed to be successful in that genre, enabled him in January 1973 to describe some of scenarios in which sex might occur in space even before the first American space station, Skylab, was ever launched. (Men had already landed on the Moon, but in Skylab, men would be spending almost three months at a time in space.) Asimov anticipated some of the benefits and perils of engaging in sex in an environment of microgravity and possible radiation exposure.

Being weightless, the effect we perceive in microgravity, has no effect, Asimov warns on our body mass. If two lovers were to bump into each other or the sides of their sleeping compartment, they would feel the same kind of force they would feel if they collided with the same speed while on Earth. For the same reason, it is just as hard to start or to stop yourself from moving, or to change directions in space as it is on Earth. If you start spinning and lose your grip on your partner, you both will go flying in opposite directions until you hit something. Or you might start "swimming" to break the "fall."

Almost twenty years later, a New England Sunday-school teacher tried to alleviate some of the logistical problems of two lovers staying together in space by inventing a harness to hold two amorous astronauts together, which she patented and called the "Belt to Paradise." So Asimov's idea of sex being more like a dance and less like digging ditches because of the potential flowing of human bodies free from the bonds gravity now has the technology to make it easier. Reportedly, NASA declined to license the device from the inventor, but never returned the prototype to her.

The Past and Future: Sex in Space as in Cyberspace

Will we have to plan for sex in space? Most humans can have sexual intercourse and other erotic play on the spur of the moment -- or at least we know of others who can. Sex on the space shuttle will, however, take considerable planning and some cooperation from colleagues.

At the same time, the typical shuttle space flights of a week or two is short enough that the astronauts could well put off any sexual activities -- and most probably have. After all, time in a shuttle is short, activities are tightly choreographed, and free time is at a premium. The novelty of space flight is also likely to totally preoccupy the attention of some crew members, as would the awe-inspiring views from space. However, in my mind -- and some NASA scientists have agreed --, the longer our flights become the more likely it is that various sexual activities will occur.

Bill Pogue, the commander of the last Skylab mission in 1974, has acknowledged in his 1985 book, How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space?, that the thought of sex did occur to him from time to time. This brief mention of "sex" in space was neatly eliminated from the revised 1991 edition of Pogue's book. Sex was replaced with questions about the possibility of having babies in space and whether any animals have been born in space taking its place. A classic example of how we Americans get around our discomfort with the recreational and relational aspects of sex, especially its more powerful erotic components, by shifting our focus to its socially redeeming procreational (reproductive) aspect.

Early in NASA's planning for various space vehicles, larger and more elaborate private crew compartments were debated for the proposed Space Station Freedom, which was larger and more elaborate than the current International Space Station. One side reportedly argued that it would be better if life in space was as close to "normal" life on Earth as possible. In this case, astronaut compartments should be large enough for two people, with the assumption that private crew intimacy might take place, even if the larger quarters would be more expensive to build. On the other side, others apparently argued that it would be better just to send single-sexed crews -- presumably all male -- because then you wouldn't need to be concerned about sex! Of course, the assumption here was that at one time, when a significant number of astronauts were drawn from the military, homosexuals would have been screened out. Gay astronauts were just inconceivable, just as women astronauts had once been unthinkable.

Over the past decade and a half, however, more realistic assessments by some space scientists both inside and outside of NASA have acknowledged that both homosexual and heterosexual behavior is likely to occur eventually. One group of NASA scientists, in fact, expressed more concern over heterosexual relationships, suggesting that if two astronauts became amorously involved, it could jeopardize the mission if the partners became more concerned about each other than the corporate crew or the mission. But why limit this concern about possibly disruptive passion and obsession to a straight couple, when the emotions of gay relations can be just as disruptive or supportive?

I would agree that heterosexual relationships are much more likely to develop in space, although I would argue that they would be more likely to increase morale and job performance during the mission, just as in other work environments here on Earth. However, astronauts would need to be prepared to deal with whatever happened in their relationships to minimize the possibility that a disruption in the relationship might disrupt -- or destroy -- the mission.

Has sex occurred in space? Certainly it has -- and here, I am referring specifically to sexual intercourse and oral sex, as well as masturbation! It would be naïve to believe otherwise. Human sex has occurred in space, because sex is pervasive in our culture, gender awareness is ubiquitous, and the astronauts are mostly young, healthy people.

Given our experience on Earth, it is very likely that at least a few astronauts have entertained the notion of being the first to "do it" in space -- unknown to the world, but still a shared, cherished, intimate secret. In addition, there is evidence that higher levels of intelligence and overall education -- characteristics selected-for in astronauts -- increase the likelihood that certain sexual behaviors will be experienced. In the space program today, the astronauts are a large-enough population so that individuals would likely be able to find appropriate partners. Privacy and space in which any sexual activity can occur, albeit scarce, can be made available with appropriate planning. Sexual intercourse can also be done rather quickly, if need be, with very satisfying results.

Having researched sex in space for two decades, I would have to say at this point in history that I wouldn't want to know for sure who the first humans were to experience solo or couple sex, straight or gay. Given the current political climate, I believe it would be unethical to "out" these pioneers. Speculation at this time may be the best approach until the next cultural cycle dawns and we accept and talk about healthy sexual experiences (outside their marital and procreative functions) as the predominant social norm. One day I hope to be able to talk with most of the astronauts and conduct meaningful sex-related studies.

If we approach the issue of sex in space with seriousness and scientific integrity, as I have tried to do over the years, we can begin to pave the way for the common woman and man of 2020 or beyond to venture into space and enjoy the best of these final frontiers! After all, the ultimate goal of many space enthusiasts is what is now recognized to be the real potential payoff of the space program: space tourism. Sooner or later, "doing it" in a space shuttle, with the opportunity to become a charter member of the "200 Mile Club", "dry humping" in space suits in a moon crater, having sex on Mars, and other space sex novelties will inevitably find their place in the attractions advertised in space tourist brochures in the not too-distant future...

Raymond J. Noonan, Ph.D., writes about and teaches human sexuality and health education at the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York in Manhattan (FIT-SUNY), and runs SexQuest/The Sex Institute.

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