Pity the columnist forced to publish on Valentine’s Day. My loyal readers don’t usually expect insightful commentary on love and related matters; after all, my true love is science policy, which is generally a lousy turn-on. Perhaps a compromise exists: sex in space. In fact, human spaceflight is on a collision course with virtually every flashpoint of modern sexual politics.
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Early astronauts were straight-laced representatives of civilized America. They attended church regularly with their happy wives and children and otherwise embodied the Right Stuff, at least as far as the public knew. Starting with Project Mercury and continuing through the space shuttle program, missions were tightly choreographed affairs with popular perception as prized as any technical goal. But the marketing of the astronaut as paladin cannot last.
When people are working in space for years — or shorter stays just for fun — they will want to have sex. So far, with their missions in mind, astronauts have resisted the urge. With longer missions being planned, however, Congress must eventually appropriate taxpayer dollars for NASA to accommodate sexuality. But the first people to have sex in space will likely pay their own way.
Robert Bigelow, who owns the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1998 to feed the emerging demand for expandable spacecraft and space stations. Their current production mode can to host up to six people in spacious luxury with better protection from radiation and micrometeorites than the International Space Station. Prototype spacecraft have been orbiting Earth since 2006, and Bigelow hopes to begin charging rent as soon as 2016.
Most of Bigelow’s clients will be researchers and national space agencies, but tourists will eventually flock to space. Soon, people will be doing the sorts of things they do in Bigelow’s budget hotels. Something about altitude is an aphrodisiac, and an inflated space habitat is more comfortable and exotic than, say, an airliner lavatory.
People might shrug off the canoodling of playboy space tourists, but everyone will scrutinize the amorous adventures of astronauts on the federal payroll. For long-duration space missions, sex cannot simply be treated with a wink and a nod; it must be either nonexistent or dealt with openly, beginning with the initial spacecraft designs. Either alternative requires unpleasant decisions.
While astronauts are able to abstain from sex during six-month jaunts to the space station, the thought of withdrawing from this basic human activity for years is unbearable. NASA could invest in drugs that would prevent debilitating levels of arousal. After all, some birth control and antidepressant medications suppress libido. However, dosing people with enough chemicals to suppress an urge as fundamental as hunger reads like a dystopian novel. We might as well launch robots with human faces.
But what if we sought to facilitate sex instead of preventing it? Sex is straightforward on Earth, at least physically, but satisfying earthly urges in space requires specialized hardware. Newton’s third law of motion says that if you exert a force on a person, then the person will exert an equal and opposite force on you — isn’t physics fun? Now, Earth’s gravity normally resists this reactionary force. Space is not as kind, leaving two options: have lame sex or strap yourself in something like a two-person Snuggie.
The need for sex is thus a design requirement calling for the attention of engineers and mission planners. Bringing even a strap — not to mention a multi-year supply of contraceptives — to space requires building storage and inventing specialized procedures. Ironically, astronauts would need to be very professional about managing the need for sexual release without compromising interpersonal relations and common trust. Imagine training for that!
On a more serious note, medical necessities for women on long-duration spaceflights are straight out of Rick Santorum’s nightmares. Many female astronauts rely on various forms of contraception to avoid disrupting training and to suppress menstruation in space. For voyages on which returning quickly to Earth is impossible, astronauts must have the capacity to perform medical abortions.
Pregnancies in space would be unacceptably hazardous. Everything from an ectopic pregnancy to many common complications could be fatal. Conception would still be unwise in a spacecraft equipped with modern obstetrics and neonatal facilities because preliminary research indicates that microgravity increases the risks of birth defects. Human spaceflight would require enshrining abortion in federal policy with federal funding for the first time.
Only in space does the messiness of human interaction meet humorless engineering and keen public attention. Matters that are normally dealt with in private are judged by the public and voted on by Congress. Although these policies would only directly affect the lucky few who travel the cosmos, a frank discussion of these issues would benefit us all.
Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.