Since the beginning of the Space Age, many a man has pondered a question that hasn’t received nearly enough consideration in sci-fi books and films (although James bond famously shagged Dr Holly Goodhead in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle in Moonraker): what would sex in space be like?
Of course there have been persistent rumours and several hoaxes about American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts “experimenting” with a range of male-female sex positions while orbiting the planet – you know, just to see what works and what doesn’t – but all of them have been met with stern official denials. You may think the question is entirely frivolous, but if humans are ever to engage in long-distance space travel and extraterrestrial colonisation the issue of human sex and procreation in space becomes rather crucial.
There are two central aspects to this debate. The first involves the practical nitty-gritty of making whoopee in low gravity environments, while the second concerns the medical implications and constraints of conceiving and bearing children in space.
Sex that’s out-of-this-world
It turns out that sex in low gravity presents some rather unique physical challenges. Nothing that humans aren’t perfectly capable of sorting out with a little research and experimentation, of course. The hurdles that need to be overcome include the following:
Since there is much less convection to carry away the participants’ body heat and people tend to sweat more in microgravity, sexual trysts would be even more hot and sticky than they are on earth – not necessarily a bad thing!
Reduced blood pressure is likely to cause a reduction in the normal, earth-bound size of a man’s erect penis – definitely a potential show-stopper.
Having to deal with free-floating blobs of assorted bodily fluids will make things a little messier than normal.
Space sickness, which afflicts most humans in space.
In the absence of significant gravity, two people may actually find it rather difficult to remain, erm… bonded. According to Newton, for every action there’s an equal but opposite reaction and so all the thrusting and shoving involved in lovemaking will tend to physical repel the two, no matter how strong their emotional attraction.
Oral contraceptives may not be very effective in space where drugs are not as readily absorbed as on earth. It’s strictly condom territory and putting one of those on in microgravity could add an extra level of difficulty.
Space sex tourism?
According to NASA physician Jim Logan “sex in space is going to have to be more or less choreographed. Otherwise it’s just going to be a wild flail”. To facilitate weightless intercourse, specially designed suits which can be joined together via an arrangement of zips, harnesses and Velcro – think two individual sleeping bags zipped together into one – have been proposed.
Mechanico-physical complications or not, some people think that sex in space will be the next big thing. Forget about the Mile High Club and join the 30 Mile High Club! Laura S. Woodmansee, the author of Sex in Space, believes that sex in orbiting space hotels will be “the killer app of space tourism, because every couple who goes up there, or threesome or whatever their personal choice is, is going to want to try this”.
But things are not all quite so straight forward. Scientists still don’t know a lot about how our bodies, having evolved in earth’s gravity, will behave and function in space in the long run. When it comes to bearing children in space they have already identified a number of problems:
Various studies, involving fish and rodents in microgravity, have shown that foetal development, particularly that of bones, the brain and the immune system, during pregnancy can be detrimentally affected. While these may not be particularly serious to start with, the effects may become amplified in successive generations born in space, creating a serious problem for extended space voyages.
Space travel has been shown to affect the reproductive system of mice, causing shrinking ovaries and testes, hormonal imbalances, a dying-off of egg-producing cells and diminished sperm counts.
(Andrew Luyt, Health24, January 2011)