Since the 1960s, astronauts and NASA outreach people have not hesitated to explain how one goes to the bathroom in space, even to kindergartners, nor to outline the many ways that an astronaut could die on a space mission. But when considering one of the most natural human functions—sexual activity, what will happen as men and women venture on longer and longer space missions together—well that was not a matter for press conferences. The public had to wait for the movie and television industry to weigh in on the matter, even through the 1980s and 90s.
But as the prospect of Mars colonization grows on the public radar screen, sex talk is not as much of a taboo topic as it was in the early days. It's mentioned in documentaries about space, it's shown in science fiction movies and TV programs set in space, and the aspiring corporate space tourism industry is well aware that it will be an issue soon. And when it comes to government space agencies, well, they're starting to talk about it. But it's still awkward.
The 400 kilometer-high club?
Men and women have been flying together in space together since 1982, when cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya went into orbit, along with male colleagues. Since that time, and especially since the International Space Station (ISS) began operations in the early 2000s, the existence of 400 kilometer high club has been the subject of great speculation. But space agencies, including NASA, have broached the subject with the awkwardness of a reluctant father attempting to have "the talk" with his daughter before her first high school dance.
"There was a time when the closest consideration of 'sex' in the space industry was the engineering challenge of developing different gadgets for men and women astronauts to permit using the toilet effectively," said social psychologist Sheryl Bishop Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Over the past couple of decades, Bishop has researched human performance in team situations—including Antarctic bases, mountain climbing, desert survival, and other environments that are analogous to long-duration space flight.
Perhaps, this explains why the bathroom question was one of the top things asked of astronauts by people of all ages over the years. But Bishop has seen improvement on the sex issue over time. "Today, we have the first space gynecologist who I'm proud to claim as one of those I've mentored over the years," she said.
But NASA's willingness to broach the subject did not come all at once. The STS-147 space shuttle mission in 1992 included Nancy Jan Davis and Mark C. Lee—a newlywed couple. It was a "Space Lab" mission, so in the cargo bay the vehicle carried a specially-designed laboratory full of science experiments. These included investigations of human physiology and how weightlessness and space radiation affected the biology of chicken embryos, frog eggs, plant sees, and fruit flies. Consequently, there was a lot for the press to ask about, yet the media were most interested in whether any human reproductive experiments might be in progress. After all, by this time the image of James Bond floating weightless wrapped in a sheet with Dr. Holly Goodhead at the end of the 1979 film Moonraker was well ingrained in the minds of many people, so it was a natural question.
But to nagging reporters, NASA said, “It’s none of your business.”
Since 1992, things have evolved, but this raises the question of whether sex in a weightless environment would be worthwhile.
Dealing with Newton's 3rd Law
There has been speculation as to whether the fact that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction would make intercourse physically extremely challenging in weightlessness—even to the point that one writer this year, discussing space sex in the online magazine Fusion Net, suggested the following:
But, as you’ll see, getting it on in space is still very much a case of ‘close but no cigar.’ And no space sex means no space babies, which will be a bummer for our plans to live on Mars–or anywhere else in outer space.
It should be pointed out that, while we'll need research to be sure that a pregnancy on a Mars colony can be taken to term yielding a healthy infant, Mars colonists will not be weightless. The gravitational pull at the Martian surface is about 38 percent that at the Earth's surface. Newton's 3rd Law will not be a problem. You'll merely be 38 percent your Earth weight and with the same amount of strength, and so amazingly agile. Sex on the Martian surface could actually be fantastic.
Newton's 3rd Law is commonly cited as a potential hurdle for space sex, at least in a spacecraft that lacks artificial gravity: anything subjected to a push will move in the direction of the push and continue moving. As noted earlier, people didn't hear about this being a potential problem in the early days of space exploration, when NASA was in its awkward, talking to adolescents stage. As for science fiction speculating about the issue, most sci-fi space setting tend to assume the use of artificial gravity. Thus, Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek series could have all the women he wanted, even while on board the Enterprise, with no explanations worked into the script. As for James Bond in a space shuttle, floating in a sheet in 1979, audiences may not have cared about Newton being ignored, but today, with the prospect of Mars colonization on the horizon, talking about space sex is not as taboo as it once was.
Recently, when one reporter asked about sexual contact during a current space mission, NASA's public relations office gave a response quite evolved from the 1992 "none of your business" remark. This time, the answer was: “While we expect our employees to behave in a professional manner at all times, their personal lives are their own until it begins to directly affect their job performance.”
That's from a government agency that has to be very careful to be diplomatic, but experts in space and physics from both science and industrial communities are still more candid.
Neil deGrasse Tyson—an astrophysicist, science TV star, and avid admirer of Isaac Newton—has gone as far as to offer potential solutions solutions and one that would make Newton smile:
“You need things like straps” Tyson once remarked. “Bring a lot of leather belts. Keep things strapped down and you’ll be just fine,” Then, he added, “There are probably some people who are fully equipped with this anyway.”
Some more industrial-minded solutions have been dreamed up as well. The most famous was proposed by the late novelist and essayist, Vonna Bonta, who in the early 2000s designed the 2-suit. Essentially, each partner would wear a garment that could be unzipped, then zipped together with the counterpart garment of the other partner. Others have suggested specially-designed structures within space habitats, such as a conch shell-shaped tunnel, in which a couple could get gradually pushed closer together (added elastic walls to the design might increase the plausibility.
As humans spend longer periods of time in space, and as bases and colonies are built on the moon, Mars, and elsewhere, the issue may not be weightlessness so much as varied gravity environments. On the moon, one weighs about 16 percent of his or her Earth weight. On Mars, it's 38 percent. There may also be rotating spacecraft and rotating space hotels at some point. By spinning, such as craft could create artificial gravity. The faster a craft spins, the higher the gravity, but if the radius of rotation is fairly short, faster spinning creates side-effects, such as vertigo and difficulty moving body parts. To reduce such effects, a space hotel or space vessel might be rotated at a speed just high enough to create partial gravity—such as Mars gravity, or lunar gravity—but not Earth gravity. People attempting sexual relations in such fractional G environments should not have any problem when it comes to Newton's 3rd Law. But they could be more agile as they are on Earth, so—excuse the pun—perhaps they would get the best of both worlds.
A version of this article originally appeared on the GLP on September 1, 2016.