I think every science fiction reader, or science fiction movie fan, has thought about zero-gravity sex. Dr. Kiri Bacal has given the subject a lot of serious thought.
Performance of the sex act in an extraterrestrial environment will require potentially complex mechanics. 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 I read the article, sex in space does not pose any truly new challenges once the physical logistics are overcome, but it is (at least as long as we have small spaceships with small crews) the ultimate closed-loop situation, so that any sexual tensions in an encapsulated small group are intensified. The multicultural nature of space crews comes into play here:
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.” 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. 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.” Difficulties related to mixed gender crews include episodes of sexual stereotyping during space missions and sexual harassment in analogue studies. 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.” What would have occurred during an actual mission, where withdrawing is not an option?
This may be of particular interest to me because the workshop I’m in is both extraordinarily multicultural and somewhat of an encapsulated bubble (in a good-sized city, with a lot of room to move, leave the group, take breaks, interact with other people).
While the challenges of sex in space may be mostly familiar, the challenges of reproduction are quite new. The article goes into a lot of detail, including:
There is good evidence that the space environment is teratogenic. Concerns include exposure to toxins in the “closed loop” cabin environment, risk of decompression, and the largely unexplored effects of micro- or partial-gravity on embryogenesis. Quail eggs flown aboard Mir 18, Mir 19, and STS-76/77 demonstrated increased rates of developmental abnormalities and mortality. Although some of the observed problems may have been due to equipment difficulties on specific flights, there was an absence of normal angiogenesis. More recent studies performed in a simulated microgravity environment demonstrated embryonic failure between days 0-5 in avian eggs, as well as other changes to the normal development process. Wasp studies on Biosatellite II documented an excess of deaths in offspring born to flown females, suggesting that there are lasting, lethal changes associated with the space environment.
Unfortunately, much of the data on the impact of the space environment on embryo development is mixed or inconclusive.
These are currently purely academic issues, and perhaps will be for a long time. Nonetheless, as a lifelong science-fiction reader, I imagine that at some point these will become important issues for those people who choose to take (or are forced to take) long space voyages.
I’m fascinated by the questions that Dr. Bacal raises, and her exhaustive research. Thanks to badgerbag for the pointer.