Sex in Space: How Do We Manage To Do It?

These are my class notes from LaunchPad Astronomy Workshop, 2011, Sex is such an interesting topic to so many people, and gets portrayed so often, I think the notes are worth repeating.The focus was on heterosexual activity, but some of the difficulties (space sickness, physiological stress, not to mention crashing into objects) would hold true for homosexual couples as well, although without the risks of pregnancy.

Early ventures into space were not conducive to heterosexual activity. The first human space flights were one man flights. When, in 1963, the first woman cosmonaut went into space, she flew with another man, but she was in one-person capsule and he was in another, and the flight did not include any docking maneuvers. Through the 1970s, crews contained only men until Salyut 7, which was a mixed crew (1982). 1983 Sally Ride, since then mixed crews common, and in 1992, a married couple. Did any of these flights include sex in space? Who knows? There’s no official confirmation. Is it possible? Theoretically yes, but difficult: microgravity, effects on physiology, radiation, psychological effects. Read on…

Why is space a terrible place for sex? Sexual desire is likely to be curbed by the physiological effects of space flight, such as space adaptation syndrome (onset within 2 hours, and persisting up to a week, experienced by 2/3 trained crew and 85% of those less well trained; includes headache, nasal congestion, dizziness, nausea, vomiting without warning); anxiety about the dangers of space, busy work schedule, lack of privacy. Male  rats experience a decrease in testosterone levels (to less than 20% normal) and this is likely true also for human; anemia, fluid loss, reduced autonomic nervous system function, especially sympathetic tone (needed for climax in both men and women); reduction bone and muscle mass; sex in space may require significantly more energy and higher risk of fractures.

Normal sexual intercourse uses 2-3 METs; at climax increased to 4 METs (about the energy of walking 3-4 mph). Heart rate rises to 130 pbm, blood pressure to 170-180 systolic. In a stressful environment and an unfamiliar partner, the expenditure can be much higher (5-6 METs). The deconditioning, fluid shifts, and loss of autonomic tone due to microgravity may further increase energy expenditure, heart rate and blood pressure during intercourse to potentially dangerous levels. Normally, risk of myocardial infarction or death is 1-2 per million; we don’t know risk in space environment.

Astronauts are screened for STDs, but this might not be true for space tourists. Microgravity results in a mild reduction in immune function, thus increasing the risk of contracting an STD.

Sex in space: Things That Can Go Wrong

Free-floating sex could be physically dangerous, with bodies ricocheting off walls, striking body parts; if “decoupling,” partners could go shooting away from one another and colliding with equipment.

Sex in space also entails the risk of penile fracture. Excessive lateral or downward buckling might result in tear in the fibrous outer tissue of the penis. Symptoms include a sharp snapping, cracking or popping sound, excruciating pain, swelling, bleeding, and deformity of the penis. Treatment would be cold compression pressure dressings, splinting, analgesics, and surgery to correct the tear, but it’s unlikely because of the lack of proper equipment and surgical expertise.

How might sex in space work?

Restraining one or both partners by the use of footholds, belts or cords, with the other partner loosely bound; or might involve a 3rd person as helper. It’s important to contain the fluids generated during sexual activity, such as perspiration, saliva, hair, semen, and vaginal mucus. In microgravity, these form globules that float and can be inhaled. Body heat dissipation can be a problem, especially during close contact. Noise and unpleasant smells inhibit sexual desire, as well. Overall, sex in space is possible with proper precautions.

Psychological effects are also potentially serious: jealousy, love triangles, interpersonal conflicts exacerbated by the isolation of space (incidents in comparable situations, Antarctica) “soap opera in space.

Sex in Space: No Babies, Please

Contraception would be very important, because of limited medical resources for pregnancy and potentially hazardous/deadly effects on embryo (such as increased radiation exposures). No method other than sterilization is 100% effective; the effectiveness of oral contraceptive in microgravity is not known. In microgravity, sperm may linger in vaginal tract, as their movement is not dependent upon gravity: transport by muscle contractions, ciliary activity, and the motility of sperm. On the other hand, microgravity and spaceflight by themselves may have contraceptive effects. Menstrual dysfunction is likely due to disturbance in circadian rhythms, intensive exercise, stress. Disturbance of the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis lead to lack of ovulation or excessive menstrual bleeding. This may include retrograde menstruation, producing endometriosis and infertility. Male fertility: fall in testosterone level and sperm motility, exposure to toxins used in life-support and propellants could reduce sperm counts.

Higher radiation levels can affect both male and female fertility. Sperm cells are the most radiosensitive in human body, resulting in reduced fertility or genetic abnormalities. Sperm cells produced on a 74-day cycle, so levels return to normal after low radiation exposures. Radiation doses needed to destroy all sperm cells are usually fatal. Ovaries lie 5-7 cm below the skin, so some slight shielding. Oocytes more radio-resistant to genetic defects than are sperm cells, but are not replaced if damaged.

In women, a radiation exposure of LD50 (enough to produce 50% fatality rate) results in sterilization (destruction of all oocytes and end to estrogen production) but effects of radiation are cumulative. Radiation can cause endometriosis.

Conception has occurred in female rats in space, but the embryos were reabsorbed. Male rats mated after flight produced offspring with higher rates developmental abnormalities, including growth retardation. But fish produced viable offspring. The opverall effects of space environment on human fertility unknown.

Pregnancy in space

Must consider pre-existing pregnancy or one originating in space. Adverse effects (microgravity, radiation) are expected to be greatest during the early stages, particularly genetic damage to to the embryo. Morning sickness would be more difficult to manage, if combined with Space Adaptation Syndrome. This might lead to “hyperemesis gravidarum” with dehydration and liver damage. A woman might experience all the complications of a pregnancy on Earth, combined with limited medical care, which could lead to serious injury or death; conditions like urinary tract infections and gestational diabetes would be more difficult to treat. Example: pre-eclampsia – hypertension, protein in urine, headache, visual disturbances, can worsen into eclampsia, with potentially fatal seizures and coma. Hemorrhagic complications: abruptio placentae – limited blood supplies for transfusion, hypovolemia and mild anemia could worsen effects; fetus more sensitive to maternal blood loss – anoxic encephalopathy.

Other complications: ectopic pregnancy, pre-term labor, rupture of the amniotic sac during acceleration/deceleration of launch and re-entry, exposure to toxins.

Might there be benefits to microgravity? It could reduce incidence of varicose veins, edema, back pain and difficulty in moving in later pregnancy, lightheadedness due to compression of the inferior vena cava when supine.

Childbirth in microgravity would require securing the woman and her assistants, maintain sterility, and containing fluids (such as amniotic fluid); spinal anesthesia is partly dependent upon gravity; cesarean section would require higher level of sterility, trained personnel, and proper equipment, than is currently available in space.

Decompression sickness: nitrogen bubbles in the circulatory system of a fetus can pass from veins into arteries through foramen ovale and ductus arteriosus (fetal bypass), would be much more dangerous if they occurred in arterial side and would impair blood supply to critical organs, such as brain and heart. Other risks to fetus: radiation danger is extreme (maximum allowed adult dose for 9 months is 0.5 rem, in LEO – Low Earth Orbit – annual exposure is 14-21 rem). If in deep space or if there is a solar particle event, the resulting exposure can be very high. If this occurs in the first 2 weeks of pregnancy, it would result in the destruction of the zygote. Developmental abnormalities would occur from exposure during 8-25 weeks gestation.

The probability of conception with effective contraception is low. However, the risk to the mother and developing embryo/fetus is very high. Risks are increased with time in space and distance from terrestrial medical care. Problems may be ultimately surmountable but for now, the risk/benefit is very unfavorable.

Kids in space

Children are more susceptible to radiation than are adults, and the risks of microgravity are also worse. Bones/muscles still developing, so microgravity is likely to result in growth retardation, especially the long bones in thighs and legs. Also possible are delayed closure of the fontanels, short stature, abnormal development of vertebrae, potentially resulting in nerve compressions syndromes. Epiphyses may close early. Adults need vigorous exercise to maintain 85% muscle/bone mass, but kids can’t use adult-sized equipment and may be uncooperative, might result in levels well below 85%.

They may experience difficulty learning to walk and balance, and problems with neurovestibular reflexes. Effects on overall neurological development are unknown.

Long-term radiation exposure increases lifetime risk of cancer. Immature immune system may increase risk of infection. Just having small children in spacecraft is recipe for disaster.

Currently, sex in space is both risky and potentially deadly. But we must find ways to reduce these risks for successful long-term flight and eventual colonization of space.

Sex with aliens

Requires a bare minimum of “complementary” anatomy. Also faith that alien sexual practices do not lead to unexpected consequences, confusion of expectations if species has more than 2 genders, black-widow-spider syndrome. Offspring very unlikely even with genetic engineering. Alien physiology almost certainly radically different from terrestrial, evolved under different condition, different DNA, proteins, amino acids, cells, etc.




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