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

Kira Bacal, MD, PhD, MPH


January 02, 2009

Psychosocial Issues

The psychosocial implications of in-flight sex and reproduction are at least as problematic as the related physiological challenges. For the foreseeable future, space crews will be relatively small in number. If pairing off occurs within the crew, it can have serious ramifications on the crew's working relationships, and therefore, on mission success and crew operations.[4,11,14,15] Former astronaut Norman Thaggard commented, "[Issues associated with romantic relationships are] just one more problem that can potentially cause the whole thing to come apart."[4]

As we have seen in recent years, even professional astronauts on active flight status can develop serious mental health issues related to interpersonal relationships,[2,16] and the extreme, prolonged stressors of the long-duration spaceflight environment will only make such situations worse.[4] Previous long-duration missions have demonstrated that minor nuisances can lead to huge conflicts, and the addition of sexual tension will create even more challenges for the crew.[17] The limited social networks can lead to problems, such as privacy issues, the odd man out, and triangles.[15] Break-ups, which must be considered an inevitable corollary to romantic pairings, can further contribute to widespread inter-personal conflicts.[11,17]

Behavioral health has long been recognized as a major challenge to long-duration spaceflight.[17,18,19,20] An International Space Station astronaut Dan Bursch commented, "Most of the challenges are more mental and psychological. "In this, he echoed the earlier sentiments of cosmonaut Valerie Ryumin, "All one needs to effect a murder is lock two men into a cabin, 18 ft by 20 ft, and keep them there for two months.[17]" How much more challenging will it be to maintain crew performance and healthy interpersonal relationships when the group becomes coeducational, semi-permanent, and sexually involved?

There are also issues with regards to a spouse, partner, or family left behind.[14,19,20] If an adulterous relationship develops within the crew, what will be the implications for the other flight crew members?[11] Can they discuss the affair, and its impact on them, with others, knowing that the gossip might spread back to the other astronauts' families? What is the role of the ground crew in maintaining a polite fiction? Mission control teams often assist flight crews and their families, for example, by arranging family teleconferences.[19] What if they are asked to help conceal an affair? If a family member becomes suspicious and seeks evidence -- perhaps in support of a divorce proceeding -- the resulting interpersonal conflicts could seriously compromise the mission.

The close quarters, limited crew numbers, and lack of privacy on space missions may create high levels of interpersonal tension around any romantic liaison, particularly if the relationship is one to which a fellow crew member personally objects.[11] Although some may be willing to adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" philosophy,[2,11] willingness to remain mute about colleagues' activities is likely to decrease sharply depending on the extent of the behavior the other person is forced to witness. As any college roommate can attest, this approach is much easier to embrace when you do not have to personally observe the behavior of which you disapprove. Unfortunately, in the space environment, there is likely to be only a single, relatively cramped habitation module for all crew members.[12] Permissiveness towards "whatever two consenting adults choose to do" may decline sharply when the clause "in the privacy of their own home" no longer applies.[18] Additionally, the number of people willing to turn a blind eye to colleagues' affairs could decrease sharply if, for example, it is a homosexual affair, or if young children are likely to be affected.

As mentioned above, the highly limited amount of privacy, both among the flight crew and between the flight and ground crews, makes secrecy very difficult to achieve. This may have a dampening effect on illicit relationships, as well as the disclosure of medically relevant information, such as STD symptoms; even public, above-board relationships may suffer from the "fish bowl" nature of a space mission. Given the amount of public speculation about celebrity relationships and pregnancies, what kind of attention should the first pregnant woman or the first married couple on a long-term space mission expect?

Gender and Cultural Issues

Cultural differences can also loom large in this issue, whether they are related to differences in gender, nationality, age, profession, religion, or training.[15,17,18] Space crews have become more multi-cultural, and are likely to remain so.[20] Interpersonal difficulties associated with cultural issues have already been documented, and more misunderstandings are likely to occur, particularly if and when relationships are no longer "strictly professional."[14,15,17,20] Not only do different cultures have very different views regarding privacy (e.g. personal space, inappropriate questions, etc), but there is also a wide range of beliefs regarding appropriate gender roles and behaviors.[15,21] For example, promiscuity has historically had very different definitions when applied to men versus women; many cultures still tolerate a much higher level of sexual activity from men than they do from women.

Mission success may be threatened by conflicts over what is acceptable behavior; indeed, different cultural values around gender norms have already "been a source of strain on international teams in analogue environments and space missions."[15] Difficulties related to mixed gender crews include episodes of sexual stereotyping during space missions and sexual harassment in analogue studies.[18,22] In one example "an unwanted sexual approach by a male team member to the sole woman in the group occurred, resulting over time in several members dropping out of the experiment."[22] What would have occurred during an actual mission, where withdrawing is not an option?

Thus, the potential for sexual behaviour during space missions to have a negative impact on mission operations is high, yet there has been little research into methods to avoid or defuse such issues. Military operations, Antarctic expeditions, or wilderness treks can be utilized as analogue environments to test the effects of different training programs, codes of conduct, or pre-arranged rules of engagement.


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