Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Book Review: Sex in Space

It turns out that my family has a tenuous connection to tabloid-headlining astronaut Lisa Nowak. Apparently, she's a few years younger than my uncle and they went to middle school together in the suburbs of Maryland's upscale Montgomery County.

According to my family's lore, one day my uncle was using crutches because of a leg injury, and Lisa kicked one crutch out from under him. He wasn't hurt as a result of the alleged assault, and knowing my uncle I'm pretty sure Lisa had a good reason to do it, assuming it's true (over years of retelling, we tend to embellish and distort stories like this in my clan).

My uncle and Lisa met up again years later when they were both flying in the US Navy. I don't think she attacked or threatened him the second time they crossed paths, but it's possible that they were both wearing diapers (my uncle has applied for astronaut slots on occasion, I'm guessing he might have had to wear the diapers as part of the flight testing process).

The Lisa Nowak love triangle naturally led me to wonder about the status of sex in space. Lisa never flew on a shuttle mission with the astronaut who was the object of her affections, so it seems unlikely that she had a chance to do a zero-g tango. The question is: have any other space travelers attempted sexual relations in orbit or beyond?

There's more to it than simple titillation. President Bush has declared travel to Mars and the establishment of a lunar base to be official goals of our space program. In either case, humans will spend extended periods in low gravity environments. Sex is an important part of human interactions. Whether or not astronauts have attempted to make love during past missions, it's hard to imagine that at least some of them won't try it during excursions lasting months to years.

This raises several concerns. We don't know whether prophylactics will work properly in space. We can't be certain that we can conceive children in low-g. And if we can, we have no idea what effect it would have on the fetus. Is gravity necessary for fetal development, or will space children suffer birth defects? Assuming the lack of Earth-like gravity itself is not a problem, will we find ways to protect sperm, ova and fetuses, not to mention astronaut parents, from the increased levels of radiation in extraterrestrial environments?

Fortunately, Laura Woodmansee has taken time to investigate the latest wisdom on all these issues and more, and compiled them in a very tasteful book entitled Sex in Space. Woodmansee is a science journalist who specializes in covering the space program. Two of her other books, Women Astronauts and Women in Space: Cool Careers on the Final Frontier specifically focus on the female astronaut contingent.

Although Sex in Space is a brief 136 pages long, Woodmansee covers topics such as whether or not anyone has had sex in space (the official answer is 'no, but the extensive hours that people have spent in space in the past 50 years and the numerous opportunities available to them suggests that there's a strong possibilty that the true answer is 'a few times'), how they might make love if given the chance, the effect of low-g on astronaut libidos, and the future potential for honeymoon trips to space.

OK, I confess, I turned first to Chapter 2 - How to make love in space. Woodmanse includes several instructional diagrams of possible positions, and brings up issues I never thought of - like just how sloppy space sex is likely to be. But once I finished that portion and went back to read the rest of the book, I found there was plenty to learn about space sex that never would have crossed my mind without Woodmansee's guidance.

One thing that didn't surprise me in reading Woodmansee's book is that NASA has not conducted any official studies of sex between humans in space. Large, formal institutions don't deal with sex well, as Nowak's troubles seem to confirm. In my opinion, however, turning a blind eye to a natural and important part of human behavior is nothing short of irresponsible, particularly if they seriously mean to put people into space for long periods.

Even a simple mission to Mars and back is going to take years. During that time, it's highly likely that some astronauts will experiment with sex. Besides, sexual intimacy is probably a good way to maintain a happy and cohesive crew, provided the whole thing is carefully thought out. After all, they will likely spend most of their time cooped up in a craft about the size of a school bus (at best). The intrepid explorers are going to need all the stress relief they can get.

Ideally, I think NASA administrators and scientists should read Woodmansee's book, and then get to work designing a comprehensive study of sex in space. At the very least, it would be a powerful rebuttal to the concerns of critics who feel that the International Space Station is a waste of time and money that could be better spent on unmanned and robotic missions. Robots can do just about everything humans can do in space except help us to anticipate the various aspects of low-g sex and conception.

Whether we like it or not, sex is going to be among the most important issues we will face if we are ever to truly to break free of Earth's gravitational bonds and move out into the vast galaxy that surrounds us. So NASA might as well face the facts and start investigating the science of sex is space.

1 comment:

Brian Schmidt said...

"it would be a powerful rebuttal to the concerns of critics who feel that the International Space Station is a waste of time and money that could be better spent on unmanned and robotic missions."

IOW, human spaceflight is needed so that we can improve our ability to do human spaceflight.

I think that's argument-by-conclusion. NASA should get rid of manned spaceflight and let manned flight go forward, or not go forward, with private missions.