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From Chapter 11: Off Duty

Sex in Space

Some people voluntarily choose celibacy, but we cannot expect this of everyone who enters space. Tourists, especially those on their honeymoon, will be drawn to space to experiment with sex under conditions of microgravity. Sex is a normal part of life, and spacefarers on long-term missions will seek some form of sexual gratification. Space settlements will draw entire families into space, and unless we are willing to content ourselves with test-tube babies, sex will be essential to replenish crews on multigeneration missions.

NASA has avoided few topics as studiously as the subject of sex in space. Given the selection of "right stuff" male astronauts, the brevity of the missions, and the close monitoring of life aboard the spacecraft, sex was not much of an issue during the early days. In later years, public pressures may have contributed to NASA's avoidance of the topic. NASA's approach to congressional support and funding rests in part on not annoying any appreciable segment of the population. Since sex outside of marriage (or even within marriage but at taxpayer expense) still runs against the grain of some Americans, NASA's avoidance of the topic is understandable.

Spaceflight conditions will affect the sheer mechanics of sex. Microgravity invites experimentation with previously impossible positions and acts. However, spaceflight also makes sex physically difficult and, by some North American standards, unappetizing. [note 9] There is little or no privacy. Lovers cannot count on gravity to stay in place--a consideration that led one inventor to develop a special leather harness that anchors one partner by the hips while nonetheless permitting undulating motions. Sweat does not collect as it would under normal gravity; rather, it forms liquid spheres that may break loose and float around the cabin. Air filtration systems are imperfect and personal hygiene facilities are limited, meaning that it is not so easy to clean up afterward. Of course, as people who have had sex in the backseat of a VW bug or in the boiler room of a tramp steamer know, none of this is prohibitive. It's just that for now, sex, like almost every other activity, will proceed without the comfort and amenities we are used to on Earth.

When we look beyond real or imagined public relations debacles and the novelty of sexual experimentation, we find profound issues of intimacy and interpersonal dynamics. [note 10] Spacefarers live in close confinement, and we want them to be cordial, indeed friendly, with one another. Yet we might be wary of unusually strong attachments or emotional bonds. We must count on crewmembers to work as a team and not show favoritism by attending to a lover rather than to the job. It could be very difficult to manage a personal relationship that goes sour early in a mission. After all, there is no place to escape the broken relationship, and a substitute partner could be very difficult to find. And, as is always the case during the long-term separation of partners, extramarital affairs can undermine preexisting marriages. Thus, spaceflight conditions can complicate romantic relationships that are already complicated enough.

One possibility is to compose the crew of preformed couples and hope that the different sets of partners will remain content with one another until the mission is over, and that favoritism will not get out of hand. Occasionally, someone suggests an overtly homosexual crew. This, of course, would do nothing to minimize rivalries and conflicts onboard but would do much to terrorize NASA public relations experts. Maybe the wisest course is simply not to ask and to leave spacefarers in charge of their own lives. In some spaceflight-analogous settings, confinees have secret, informal "provisional marriages" that last until the mission is done, at which point they terminate the relationship and return home with feigned innocence to their husbands and wives.


9. James E. Oberg and Alcestis R. Oberg, Pioneering Space: Living on the Next Frontier (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1986). 10. Connors, Harrison, and Akins, Living Aloft.