Sex in space and on Mars: scientists tell what the future holds for people

Dmitry IvancheskulLife
Loving astronauts Jen Davis and Mark Lee in space.

In 2023, humanity is closer than ever to the brink of long-term space travel. Think of Elon Musk, who intends to send a manned mission to Mars by the end of this decade. Such long-term travel raises unanswered questions for scientists: how long-term isolation, limited personal space, and weightlessness will affect human sexuality and whether humanity is capable of loving and procreating in space.

The Inverse publication talks about what kind of relationships can arise between people in space, what will be the peculiarity of sex in zero gravity, and what is known about the rare space experiments that have explored such intimacy.

The only known couple in love in space

There is only one reliable case when a couple of lovers went into space. It was Mark Lee and Jen Davis, who met at an astronaut training camp and got married in January 1991 in secret from NASA.

They had to hide their relationship from their superiors, as NASA has an unwritten rule prohibiting married astronauts from flying together.

But Lee and Davis did their best to keep the relationship under wraps and in September 1992, they embarked on a space journey on the Endeavour shuttle (STS-47). The fact that they were in love became known only when the astronauts' replacement would have led to the cancellation of the mission.

Despite the fact that more than 30 years have passed since then, no other married astronaut couple has ever been in space.

Was there any intimacy between them in zero gravity? NASA claims that no human has ever had sex in space. There is nothing but speculation to suggest otherwise.

However, a certain kind of sex, so to speak, did take place there. In space, Lee and Davis spent some time artificially inseminating frog eggs.

Love to survive

The issue of sex in space is not even a matter of relieving fatigue or enjoying contact with another person. It is purely a matter of survival. If humanity wants to become an interplanetary species, we will need to have children outside our planet and even in zero gravity.

The topic of space sex, which has been the subject of several films and TV shows, such as Passengers or The Expanse, has also been explored over the years by science fiction writers. By all accounts, intimacy in space can be an exciting experience. But now, more than 60 years after the first human spaceflight, we still know very little about it.

Given that isolation and exposure to extreme conditions cause anxiety and depression, the possibility of love and intimacy during long-duration space travel could improve the lives of space travellers exponentially.

"Space travel and life will force people to find new ways to safely and morally express their intimacy and sexuality in the limited, isolated and confined conditions of space habitats," said Simon Dubé, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University who studies space sexology, or extraterrestrial intimacy.

Mission to Mars

But preparations for a mission to Mars must find answers, because the flight to the red planet and back will last about 900 days and anything can happen between the participants of this mission during this long period.

"We'll start to worry more about isolation and personal space restrictions as missions get longer, particularly a mission to Mars," said Emmanuel Urquieta, an associate professor at the Centre for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and chief medical officer of NASA's Institute for Translational Space Medicine Research.

2.5 years is too long to abstain from the social interactions that people crave, including romance.

"(Astronauts on Mars) will be largely cut off from everything they know on Earth, from their family and friends," Urquieta said.

Sex is not just about pleasure

But before future astronauts and other potential space travellers can be confident in their ability to have intimate relationships in space, there are many medical, moral and logistical challenges that need to be addressed.

Shauna Pandya, director of the Space Medicine Group at the International Institute of Astronautics and Astronautics, explains that the human body is a complex puzzle in itself, but in space it is even more so.

"When we talk about sex and space, we're pulling on a very, very tightrope," explains Pandya, stressing that the problem is indeed very complex, because right now, no one can even say how "arousal works in space".

In addition, it is not known what the reproductive health of space pioneers will be like and how the menstrual cycle will function in zero gravity and under the influence of cosmic radiation or on another planet in the solar system.

In 1983, NASA believed that the first female astronaut, Sally Ride, would need 100 tampons for a week-long mission just to be safe. 40 years later, too little is known about the impact of space travel on the menstrual cycle. Most female astronauts take oral contraceptives during their missions, which delay menstruation indefinitely while they are off Earth, even though this carries a risk of blood clots.

Pandya notes that menstrual bleeding on the space station can be a real problem, as the use of tampons can cause the ISS waste system to malfunction, which would jeopardise the safety of the crew.

Scientists also do not know how pregnancy can develop in space. Pandya explains that pregnancy in space carries all the same potential health complications as on Earth, but to a hundred times greater extent.

"Even at the level of the International Space Station, we are exposed to about 250 times more radiation than on Earth," she says.

Scientists know that radiation on the ISS causes damage to eye tissue, reproductive organs and bone marrow in adults, so its effects on a developing organism could be even more critical.

"We need a lot more research to determine how safe reproduction and development is in deep space, and in space in general," Pandya says.

But that's not all. The likelihood of pregnancy and childbirth in space also poses more mundane problems:

  • What if an astronaut decides not to carry the pregnancy to term?
  • Will the spacecraft have enough food and supplies to support the unexpected arrival of another very demanding crew member?
  • How will the arrival of a newborn affect the crew's ability to perform their duties and interpersonal relationships?

Intimacy without privacy

Konrad Schocik, a visiting scholar and bioethicist at Yale University who studies human enhancement and the philosophy of space exploration, believes that it makes no sense for people to think about having a child in space as long as there is a possibility of prosperity on Earth. However, he adds that humanity must be ready to adapt in order to have a chance for intimate relationships in space.

"We can assume that intimate relationships will have to be developed in a very unfavourable environment in terms of privacy. I think that it is the lack of freedom and autonomy that will challenge human life in space in general," Shotsyk says.

Simply put, the happiest rendezvous can have just as much of a negative impact on the mission's main goal as a difficult breakup.

Pregnancy and birth in space

Currently, humanity has data only on the stages of pregnancy, birth and growth of animals in space. Jellyfish, wasps and even quail eggs have already been studied in space.

In 1979, the USSR first investigated mammalian sexual reproduction in space with a rat breeding experiment, but to no avail.

A decade later, a Chinese mission sent early-stage mouse embryos into space to determine whether they could develop in space. The experiment was also unsuccessful.

Earlier, OBOZREVATEL talked about what the future holds for the sex entertainment industry and what threats sex robots could pose to humans.

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