March 13, 2000 01:48pm
'Meet Me In the Airlock ... ' Will Sex In Space Fly?
by: Daniel Sorid
As the wisdom goes, beware of sex in the workplace -- the breeder of discomfort, disillusionment, disgust and even disgraceful lawsuits.
But even with those risks, intimate group projects and passions for the job make on-the-job romance, to some, irresistible.
And so it may go in space.
It may not be such a leap to assume that when locked away in cramped spaceships on years-long missions to Mars and other planets, astronauts might end up playing a little bit more intensely than NASA-TV would care to show.
But as a piloted mission to Mars moves closer to the realm of possibility, scientists are beginning to expand their studies into sex and romance in space.
"We're so new to the game," said Dr. Joanna Wood, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston. "The biology and the physical sciences have been addressed for a long time. There has been no need to worry much about the psychological [issues] because we weren't going anywhere very long."
The space agencies
NASA does not ban sex between crewmembers.
"We depend and rely on the professionalism and good judgment of our astronauts," said NASA spokesman Ed Campion. "There is nothing specifically or formally written down about sex in space."
Still, don't expect much public commentary on the topic from the space agency. NASA has historically been squeamish about the topic of sex in space; in fact, a psychologist at NASA's Johnson Space Center who studies interpersonal relationships declined, through a spokeswoman, to be interviewed for this article.
A new book written by a French astronomer, however, alleges NASA studied the feasibility of 10 sex positions in space during a space shuttle mission in 1996, though this claim has been discredited, and has been vigorously denied by NASA. (Six of the positions required the aid of an elastic belt to hold the partners together, the author writes in the book, The Last Mission.)
The Russian Space Agency, on the other hand, is the world leader in studying the effects of crew isolation; their astronauts hold world records for time in space and their scientists have been studying the effects of group isolation on the ground for decades. Their Mir space station has held mixed gender crews. Still, while the Russians have studied the impact of weightlessness on animals in space, including the animals' sex drives, romance and sex for procreation hasn't figured prominently in their work.
The only space agency that seems to be paying any attention to sexual issues in space is the European Space Agency, which published a study in 1998 that showed spaceflight causes a reduction in testosterone levels in male astronauts.
Dr. Wood is no stranger to isolation. She studies the psychological reactions of science teams on missions to Antarctica lasting several months.
She believes that lessons learned from extended isolation on the ground can be used to prepare doctors and scientists for dealing with similar issues -- including sex and romance -- when long-duration space missions become possible.
"I think the biggest problem is not sex, per se, but having people who are emotionally mature," she said. "People who are younger are slightly more hormonal, maybe a bit more impetuous."
"These types of environments, while strange and exciting, truth be told can be a little scary," she continued. "You find yourself down there and you have no way out for eight months. So what might have been a passing attraction or mild interest, had these two individuals met in the rest of the world, becomes much more intense."
But that passion can translate into awkwardness and divisiveness in close-knit quarters, especially when mission members try to hide their affair, or when either party is married.
"Trying to keep it a secret is difficult, because it is a small environment," she said. "When word gets out, there's sometimes some resentment among the other guys who were interested and didn't get a chance. There's strong disapproval if either part is married."
Another no-no: sleeping around.
"If there is any changing of partners, it gets even uglier," she said. "This kind of behavior, while it might be acceptable in the larger society -- really, it's…creating tension and competition."
Space sex: fiction
The argument may be academic. It seems space sex works a whole lot better as an idea than in reality. While there are no confirmed reports of a sexual experience in space -- only rumors -- all parties agree that in a zero-gravity environment, the physics of sex could make the act difficult, if not completely awkward.
But a little zero-G never stopped anyone's imagination.
In a provocative story, "Honeymoon in Space," written by George Griffith and published in 1908, two newlyweds explore new worlds in a vacation through the solar system. The mission through the planets appears to be merely a metaphor for the sex act.
"I think the biggest problem is not sex, per se, but having people who are emotionally mature. People who are younger are slightly more hormonal, maybe a bit more impetuous."
Dr. Joanna Wood -- National Space Biomedical Research Institute, Houston
Their phallic spaceship -- a teak cylinder "50 feet long by 20 broad," with "curtains of ribbed steel" draping down -- maneuvers deeper and deeper through the solar system while the young maid exclaims how she wants to see more and more.
"We shall see a good many marvels and, perhaps, miracles before we come back," says the bold Lord Redgrave to his new bride. "I may remind your ladyship that you are just now drawing the last breaths of earthly air which you will taste for some time, in fact until we get back! You may as well take your last look at Earth as Earth, for the next time you see it, it will be a planet."
"There was of course very little sleep for any of the travelers on this first night of their adventurous voyage," the narrator coos.
But for better or for worse, we probably won't see anything this sexually-charged in space for the foreseeable future.
The issue remains
Still, as NASA thinks about how it should staff its long-duration missions, it may need to consider how to avoid disruptive rendezvous and relationships among its astronauts.
There will always be affection between crew members, Wood says. But whether that affection develops into a potentially troublesome romance depends on the maturity and family bonds of the crew, she says.
One solution: a healthy relationship at home. Wood says stability on the ground can keep crew members levelheaded in space.
"Many of the guys report much more discomfort from missing their wives, loved ones," she said. "It's not sex, it's that they miss the relationship."
One member of an Antarctic mission whom Wood studied, while missing his wife, insisted that sex with a fellow crew member would be no help.
"He said there would be no comfort with another," Wood said.
He would know: the man first met his wife when the two were locked away in a previous Antarctic expedition.