Image credit: Barbarella (1968) - Paramount Pictures
Sex. It's pretty much at the center of everything we do as a species. So what will happen when we inevitably turn our home planet to dust and have to take this show on the interplanetary road? Is it possible for humans to reproduce in space? What happens if we can't? While there may be an element of childish curiosity to these questions, the answers could prove vital to the survival of our species. So if this is so important, why don't we ever hear about any serious research into the matter? NASA has never addressed the issue, other than to dispel the rumors of sexual experiments that arose from a 1989 hoax paper. Are NASA just a bunch of prudes, or are they quietly labouring away on a solution that will make our wildest science fiction fantasies possible?
So what are the logistical obstacles that need to be overcome to make this all happen?
Item 1. Lift-Off
I hate to lower the tone right off the bat, but this really is the best place to start. While the effect of microgravity on the male erection has not been formally tested, there have been ample opportunities to at least see if it possible. After all, there have been human males floating around the International Space Station for years now and, while didn't see an erection demonstration among any of Chris Hadfield's famous YouTube videos, someone must have an answer by now?
Well, the unofficial answer is that a microgravity erection is achievable, it would just be much trickier than it is down here on Earth. In space, the lack of gravity means that blood does not pool in the lower half of your body as it would normally, instead the majority of blood pools around the chest and head, which is why those ISS astronauts always look so puffy-faced. Again, this has not been proven, but researchers theorize that this change in blood flow would make it incredibly hard for your body to divert the necessary supplies to your love station. Don't fret though, because BoingBoing noted in 2010, that when author of Packing for Mars, Mary Roach, asked a Russian cosmonaut about the notion of 'self-stimulation' in space, she got this cheerful response that gives us all hope.
"My friends ask me 'How are you making sex in space?' I say, 'By Hand!!'"
Item 2. Docking
With the good news that affection-seeking males are not necessarily grounded in space, we can move onto some real logistics. As many of you know, successfully knocking boots requires some semblance of movement, preferably in the same direction as your loved one. But in space, the slightest thrust towards your partner could send them spinning off towards the other end of of the ship. It has been suggested that, for microgravity sex to work, the two lovers would have to be tethered to each other and anchored to a wall in order to successfully 'dock' with each other. But what if being tied down isn't your thing? It has been suggested in various forums that a third person could be employed to help choreograph and conduct the floating lovers, gently guiding them together. Intimacy issues aside, caution must go to that brave soul because as you are about to find out, those with front row seats may get wet....
Item 3. Exchange
With all that tethered/orchestrated thrusting, your bodies are going to perspire....a lot. That's not an issue here on Earth, but in space, sweat tends to form a sticky and unpleasant film over your skin. That's not a particularly enticing prospect for most romantic pioneers, but it's not the end of the world, because you're all tethered in and you've worked really hard to make this historic docking of humans happen. But what about the climax? It's not clear as to whether or not the final moments of love-making would be inhibited by microgravity, but one might assume that if blood flow is hampered all the way up there, then this climactic exchange may also run into complications.
Item 4. Conception
It might not be the main driver behind all of your hard work, but considering there are multiple plans to create a human colony on Mars, conceiving a little space cadet will soon become a big issue when it comes to interplanetary intercourse. Becoming pregnant in space is generally considered a huge no-no, mainly because of the number of unknowns associated with it. In 2006, Laura Woodmansee, author of Sex in Space warned Space.com of the dangers associated with conceiving in space.
"On a cautionary note, men and women in their childbearing years will need to be careful not to conceive a child while in space since it may be dangerous to the mother and baby. Based on animal experiments, we know that fetal development is affected in space. Bones, muscles (including the heart), and neurology, will simply not develop properly without Earth gravity. We also know that human hormones and even sperm motility are affected by a lack of gravity. Radiation is a serious problem too, even in Earth orbit where our magnetic field protects us somewhat."
So while space babies might be out of the question, I've certainly not heard enough to tell me that a casual, albeit expensive and highly complex, hookup in space is out of the question. With space tourism really kicking off in earnest over the next year, it could be that one day soon we will be ditching our dreams of joining the mile high club in favor of new, loftier goals. Just make sure you bring your tethers.
It is unknown how much data the various space agencies have on this matter, but one thing is for sure, NASA aren't ready to start embracing it publicly. One thing is for sure, though. As soon as a space agency does start to investigate microgravity lovemaking, there's going to be an awfully long line of volunteers for that mission.