Complicating Factors: Issues Relating to Romance and Reproduction During Space Missions

Kira Bacal, MD, PhD, MPH


January 02, 2009


The popular imagination has always been titillated by the notion of sexual relations in a low gravity environment. Science fiction authors from Isaac Asimov to Larry Niven have speculated about it; movies, such as the James Bond film "Moonraker", have offered salacious images for our entertainment. Persistent rumors have been spread about sexual hijinks on the Shuttle, as well as claims about fictitious government research into "sex in space."[1]

Beyond the sensational nature of these stories, however, are genuine concerns pertaining to issues related to sexual activity in space, such as behavioral health, team dynamics, and pregnancy and embryogenesis, with their unknown complications.[2,3] In addition, sexual relations are a key aspect of most adults' lives, and it is unrealistic to ignore both the psychosocial impact of sexual activity on space operations and the potential physiological consequences.[4,5,6] Early research suggested that human conception and development away from Earth may be significantly problematic,[7] yet data are still insufficient to answer the crucial question posed by Jenks: "Can development from fertilization through the formation of viable gametes in the next generation occur in the space environment?[8]"

Performance of the sex act in an extraterrestrial environment will require potentially complex mechanics.[9,10,11,12] Past generations of motivated humans have been able to overcome similar challenges relating to issues of geometry and access, whether posed by chastity belts, the backseats of compact cars, or airplane lavatories. It is thus unlikely that logistical issues of the extraterrestrial environment will prove insurmountable. However, serious questions remain. For example, what impact will an in-flight sexual relationship have on team dynamics and efficiency? What are the chances of a successful pregnancy and delivery? Is the risk of STD transmission higher or lower in space? What about the risk of ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, or other complications?

As life developed and spread across the Earth, humans adapted to a wide range of climates, altitudes, diets, and habitats. Yet there were absolutes throughout this period: gravity, radiation (or lack thereof), atmospheric composition, and a relatively narrow band of temperature and ambient pressure. As we move beyond the atmosphere, however, these parameters change abruptly. Can millions of years of evolution keep pace and permit reproduction to occur in such a different environment? If human life is not able to reproduce itself away from our home planet, what will be the implications for our space programs and long-term goals?

If and when sexual relationships within a space crew become acknowledged, the medical system will have to reflect this. It will need to be augmented to reflect the increased medical risks created by sexual activity. Unfortunately, the previous medical system designs have deliberately not included planning for such conditions. Diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities will now need to reflect all the possible conditions, ranging from STD to pregnancy and its potential complications, as well as the increased risk of interpersonal conflicts arising from the more complicated relationships. Training for both ground and flight crews will also need to be adapted to address these issues. Furthermore, in case of pregnancy, although the amount of research on this topic has been limited,[13] many studies suggest that the space environment may have significant and deleterious effects on a developing fetus.


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