Inside the push to study sex in space

NASA is weirdly prudish when it comes to doin’ it in the final frontier. These researchers want to change that.

Peter Gamlen
Zero gravity action
Originally Published: 

Late last year, a team of five Canadian academics published a proposal calling upon major space organizations “to embrace a new discipline” of study. This new discipline, they argued, may prove vital to the success of planned efforts to push deeper into space — and potentially build off-world human settlements. They called this supposedly game-changing new field of research “space sexology: the scientific study of extraterrestrial intimacy and sexuality.”

In other words: doin’ it in space.

“Rocket science may take us to outer space,” the proposal’s authors added in a related article. “But it will be human relationships that determine if we thrive as a spacefaring civilization.”

It’s easy to brush this proposal off as the frivolous musing of horny academics overstating the importance of their specialties in hopes of building a playground in which they can pursue their pet interests freely. But if you pick through the text, it actually lays out a simple yet compelling argument.

If we ever truly want to establish off-world settlements — and people like Elon Musk do aim to do just that by 2050 — then we need informed plans for managing relationships and reproduction in those outposts. Sexual intimacy is vital for most people’s physical and mental health, so astronauts on multi-year missions may want, or even need, to maintain some kind of sex life while in space. We know that space environments can seriously warp any number of bodily processes, and by extension that sex and intimacy in space will not work like they do on earth. Yet there has never been a concentrated, dedicated effort to hash out the details of how to manage these core aspects of human life beyond our little blue orb.

Maria Santaguida, a psychologist at Concordia University and one of the proposal’s co-authors, notes that she and her colleagues are not the first to highlight the importance of studying sex in space. A handful of researchers spread across several continents and disciplines have been pushing this point for at least 30 years. Over the last few years especially, concerns about our collective lack of knowledge in this field have started to catch on with the public as well. A few artists have even created eye-catching speculative designs and prototypes of contraptions meant to help astronauts get down in the void in an effort to get people thinking about the issue.

Yet major space exploration and research players have historically dismissed these piecemeal calls to action, often aggressively and even derisively, as irrelevant to their work. Advocates of space sex research chalk this up to a mixture of limited bandwidth leading to the prioritization of other pressing concerns, and a pervasive culture of sexual conservatism created by the structure and funding mechanisms behind most agencies.

“But change is happening,” Santaguida told Mic. Change that might open avenues for a fleshed-out proposal like her team’s to attract concentrated support, and gain some traction with space agencies, as well as private industry players.

Everything We (Don't) Know About Sex In Space

Since the early days of human space exploration in the mid-20th century, we’ve recognized that low gravity environments have major effects on almost every human bodily system — like blood flow, muscle and skeletal strength, and even hormonal balances. We’ve also recognized that, without the protection of earth’s magnetic field, people in space are exposed to wildly high levels of ambient radiation that, over time, can mess with our bodies and DNA, potentially leading to a host of conditions ranging from radiation sickness to cancer to nerve degeneration.

Early space biology understandably put its focus on figuring out how to keep astronauts alive in this hostile environment, and how to rehabilitate them once they return to earth. These early space missions were also so intense, brief, and cramped — usually just a couple of people in a tiny metal can hurtling into a brutal and unknown vacuum — that there was no reason to consider sex.

But in the 1980s, after the Soviet Union launched the Mir, a groundbreaking space station that allowed astronauts to remain in space for months on end, space scientists, including some on the United States National Research Council, started to raise concerns about the effects of long-term space travel on sexual and reproductive health. Reports from the time stress how little we knew about the effects of space environments on fertility and sexual functioning. And when the USSR started running co-ed missions, also in the 80s, public commentators got to musing in the press about the prospect of sex in space: Was it happening? What would it be like? Would it even be safe?

Over the last decade or so, the increasingly real prospect of space tourism and settlement efforts has fueled a new burst of popular interest in extraterrestrial sex. Articles, conferences, and even TV specials on the nitty-gritty details of how doing it in space might or might not work now abound. They detail how, in low gravity environments, any thrust or push might send two people flying away from each other. How low gravity’s effects on hormone levels and blood flow might take a toll on people’s sex drive, and make it hard to get physically aroused. How liquids pool up for lack of gravity, potentially leading to giant globs of sweat and cum floating about.

In the 80s, NASA reportedly dismissed concerns about the effects of space on sexual health as “professional carping” by biologists — a big stink over nothing. “They believe the animal studies in space that some scientists have called for are difficult and uninformative,” Celia Hooper of United International Press wrote in a 1988 expose on the topic. A waste of cargo space.

“Research on human intimacy and sexuality in space — including their socio-cultural and psychological components — is quasi-nonexistent.” - Simon Dubé, co-author of the space sexology proposal

Eventually, the agency changed its tune. A NASA representative told Mic it and its partners have “studied the basic science of reproductive physiology in several species including fruit flies, worms, snails, jellyfish, fish, frogs, chicken (bird) eggs, and rodents. Other research studies have also been completed using bull and human sperm.” Several other space agencies and external research groups have conducted their own studies on space’s effects on sexual and reproductive health, and academics have just started to compile comprehensive reviews of their findings.

However, one review published in 2018 by the scientists Alex Layendecker and Shawna Pandya argues that the data generated by these experiments “are scant, often conflicting, and do not provide enough information to definitively say whether or not [reproductive] physiological processes can safely and successfully occur in a space environment.” Notably, data collected from animal models may not apply to human subjects; data collected during short experiments in one specific space environment may not tell us anything about the effects of long-term missions in an environment with a unique gravity and radiation profile; and data on one stage of reproduction doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about space’s effects on another stage of reproduction.

“If you were to take reproduction and break it down into all of its various parts,” the space medicine expert Kris Lehnhardt told National Geographic, also in 2018, “there’s never really been a dedicated scientific program that looked at how each of these steps is affected.” At best, we can hazard sporadic guesses at the effects of any given space environment on people's reproductive organs, on the process of conception and gestation, on a newborn child.

And Simon Dubé, another Concordia University psychologist and co-author of the space sexology proposal, adds that all this research only tackles one narrow sliver of human sexual experiences: reproduction. “Research on human intimacy and sexuality in space — including their socio-cultural and psychological components — is quasi-nonexistent,” he told Mic.

“No research has explored intimate relationships, nor the human experience of sexual functions and wellbeing, in space or space analogues, or how any of this can affect crew performance.”

Why Space Agencies Don't Want To Talk About Sex

Whenever reporters or researchers push space agencies to talk about not just reproductive health but the act of sex itself — much less intimate relationships — they usually just clam up.

When Mic asked NASA for comment on the sex-and-relationship-specific concerns and research priorities outlined in the Canadian academics' space sexology proposal, a representative said they had “not reviewed this proposal, so it would not be appropriate for us to comment on it.”

No other agencies responded to requests for comment.

Some observers argue space agencies only attend to, or engage with questions on, reproductive health because they aren’t interested in off-world tourism or settlement — just raw space science.

Sure, they’re planning ambitious exploration projects, like NASA’s Project Artemis, which will involve prolonged stays on the moon, and then eventual human travel to Mars. These missions could leave small teams of astronauts in space for years on end. But NASA and other big space agencies have reportedly long feared that intimate relationships could jeopardize crew stability, rather than contribute to astronauts’ mental and physical wellbeing. So, they’ve traditionally called for abstinence on missions.

“We are primarily concerned with ensuring crew members’ health and safety in space for long periods of time,” the NASA representative told Mic. “Our Human Research Program is working to mitigate the five hazards of human spaceflight and researching ways to help crews work together and remain emotionally prepared during their journey.”

“Although astronauts are held as professionals, long term missions beginning at two and a half years open possibilities for conception.” - Seth Barbrow, U.S. military physician

“Should a future need for more in-depth study on reproductive health in space be identified, NASA would take the appropriate steps.” But, they added, “we are not currently seeking proposals or considering a dedicated field or project office on this topic.”

Periodically, rumors circulate about astronauts breaking tacit no-sex rules. Notably, in 1992 two NASA astronauts secretly fell in love and got married during training, told their superiors about their relationship when it was too late to alter their mission, and went to space together, spurring a ton of tabloid gossip. Tellingly, astronauts usually respond to these rumors with either offhand dismissal, or borderline indignation at the thought that they’d ever consider having sex in space, and by so doing supposedly jeopardizing their missions. “We are a group of professionals,” NASA’s Alan Poindexter told reporters back in 2010 when asked if any hot action went down during a two-week mission to the International Space Station. “We treat each other with respect, and we have a great working relationship. Personal relationships are not … an issue.”

“We don’t have them and we won’t.”

Valeri Polyakov, a Russian cosmonaut who spent 437 days in space in the ‘90s, did keep a diary in which he noted that state psychologists recommended he take a sex doll with him to deal with any urges he might have, and suggested that the Mir had a small collection of dirty movies. But he rejected this recommendation, and said that his horniness just faded after he ignored it.

Several doctors argue that banking on abstinence during long-term space missions is a naïve position to take — including at least one United States military physician. In a 2020 policy memo, Seth Barbrow of the Military Academy wrote: “Although astronauts are held as professionals, long term missions beginning at two and a half years open possibilities for conception.”

However, agency critics often argue that this is not pure naivete. Willful sexual ignorance, after all, is out of character for a group of serious scientists.

Instead, these critics and skeptics believe the agencies' stony silence on sex stems from the fact that they all rely primarily on state funding. NASA actually allegedly censored images of human nudity on several probes sent into space, which were meant to show any aliens who might encounter them what humans look like, because of concerns about how the public, and Congress, would react to them sending porn into space.

“All it takes is one member of Congress complaining about smut to torpedo future funding,” says Jon Lomberg, a space artist who worked on those probes. “Why would NASA risk it?”

The Free Market Fails Again

Whatever their reasoning, if the major space agencies are not going to explore sex in space, some argue that private space organizations, like Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, might pick up the torch. After all, they’re not only free to pursue their own interests — they’re also the main forces pushing for the creation of space tourism ventures and off-world settlements.

But these private organizations have been awfully quiet about sex and intimacy in space as well. Musk notably brushed off concerns about the effects of space on any aspect of human biology, arguing that his job is just to work out the hardware of how to get to Mars cheaply, quickly, and reliably. Mars One, the defunct organization that planned to settle Mars, also waved away questions about sex by saying that it’d give every settler ample contraception, tell them about the known risks of space environments for sex, reproductive health, and child development, and see what happened.

Neither Blue Origin, SpaceX, or any other private space venture Mic reached out to replied to a request for comment.

“Everyone is focused on the hardware” that will get us farther into space, Lehnhardt said back in 2018 of these sorts of ventures. “And the hardware is great, but in the end it’s the squishy meat-sack that messes everything up. Ignoring the human system, if you will, in future plans and designs is only going to lead to failure,” no matter how impressive a firm’s hardware may be.

Academics, either independent or ensconced in universities, also tend to have more freedom to explore subjects that the big space agencies might not want or be able to work on themselves. After all, they’ve been the ones leading the sporadic charge to improve research on sex in space for decades now. But scholars have their own funding and bandwidth limitations — and often lack access to actual space resources, forcing them to run experiments in rough analogue simulations of actual space flights, which inherently limits the potential of their research. The team behind the recent space sexology proposal note that while they want to connect the discipline to a major space agency they also think it’s important to build ties to universities, private corporations, and anyone else who might have relevant resources.

“We need to bring everyone to the table to holistically address the transdisciplinary challenges of human eroticism in space, and facilitate wellbeing, as we journey to the final frontier,” says Judith Lapierre, a Université Laval health expert, and one of the co-authors of the proposal.

The Future of Space Sexology

So, how is a simple proposal to create a new field of study going to turn this tide of systematic neglect and ignorance? Why does this team of academics believe their appeal will gain traction with major space agencies when decades of (admittedly ad hoc) space sex advocacy has failed?

Dave Anctil, a scientific ethics expert at the Collège Jean De Brébeuf and one of the proposal’s co-authors, says it all comes down to calendars. The closer space agencies and private companies get to launching their big projects, he argues, the harder it’s become for them to ignore all the human aspects of these ventures that they’ve long shunted to the side. They may not want to acknowledge sex and intimacy. But it’s slowly shoving its way into their faces.

“More and more researchers around the globe and people working in the space sector recognize that addressing human intimate and sexual needs in space is one of the keys to unlocking our long-term expansion into the universe,” Santaguida told Mic.

“There has been great positive interest in our proposal from the media, the public, and some people working in the space sector,” adds Dubé. “We hope to leverage this interest to make innovative collaborations and science happen in the near future.”

These may sound like the unduly optimistic platitudes of activists. But there are faint signs that the team may be onto something. Notably, NASA seems far more receptive to questions about sex and intimacy in space than they have been in the past — when they might have just ignored queries like Mic’s. There’s also some paper trail evidence that people within NASA are trying to push the agency to funnel money into ambitious new sexual health projects.

Of course, even if the Canadian team’s proposal to create a new field does gain traction as they hope, moving from a tentative framework to a living, breathing, and productive project will be a long, complicated process. Notably, the academics and their allies will have to figure out how to design robust experiments, and perform them ethically, in space or space-like environments.

But Dubé is confident that they’ll figure something out, so long as they can get enough dedicated resources for space sexology to thrive. After all, space science has always been about taking big swings, and then just kinda making them work. And, Lapierre adds, as humans push into space, “it would be nothing short of unethical to let these roadblocks stand in the way of knowledge.”