Everything you've always wanted to know about having sex in space
Weighing up the pros and many, many cons of intergalactic boning
“Discovery lies in seeing what everyone sees, but thinking what no one else has thought.” – Albert von Szent-Györgyi, Hungarian Nobel Prize–winning physiologist
Picture yourself in your room, alone, at night. You look at your dick in your hand and then up and away, into space, at the moon, past it, at the stars, at the deep, unending blackness, the beyond, the infinite, and think: man, I wonder what fucking in space would be like.
Maybe, for you, sex is as rare as having the opportunity to see the chalky dust bowels of the Sea of Tranquility for yourself. But for the Very Cool among us, sex is a daily – or at least, if the mood is right, weekly(/yearly) – occurrence. And as Earth’s eggheads coalesce into one giant, pulsating brain to workout how we best go about leaving this dying planet for good – SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk says he wants to make humans into a “multi-planetary species” – it’s time to start thinking about what this would mean for humanity's everyday experiences.
Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin broke free from our atmosphere on 12 April 1961 as a part of the Vostok program, and we’ve been bothering space with humans ever since. That’s 56 years! Over 20,000 days! Surely someone has banged up there?
“No one has ever publicly admitted to having sex in space,” Kris Lehnhardt, Attending Physician and Assistant Professor at George Washington University, told me via email, “but it has likely happened.”
One of the key stumbling blocks for even initiating having sex in space is that space’s lack of gravity means that getting hard is really hard. Gravity helps our blood flow to the lower parts of our body, so in space, blood rises to your head and chest, as Anderson University physicist and astronomer John Millis, Ph.D. pointed out to BuzzFeed. It’s not impossible, but it would be very difficult. And it’s not just men who suffer: the decrease of blood rushing to the genitalia means that swelling of the clit and vaginal lubrication would also be greatly lessened, says Mills.
So far, so unsexy, but this is still a topic largely under-researched by NASA and other space organisations (as far as we know, anyway), and there has been anecdotal evidence of space boners. As Lehnhardt noted, astronaut Mike Mullane wrote in his book Riding Rockets that he “had an erection so intense it was painful. I could have drilled through kryptonite.”
What about wanking, I asked Lehnhardt: hey, Kris, has anyone ever wanked in space?
“To the best of my knowledge no one has ever publicly admitted to masturbating in space,” the actual Attending Physician and Assistant Professor at an actual university said, “but given the length of missions now on the International Space Station, the answer is probably: yes.”
And they do spend a long time up there, with many floating around inside a giant tin can 253 miles above Earth’s surface for over two hundred days. Considering that the ISS is probably one of the least private places ever invented – with hundreds of cameras and hundreds of people look at those cameras, there is very little opportunity to knock one out – it sounds incredibly difficult. But love always finds a way.
Astronaut Ron Garan said in a Reddit AMA in 2012: “The ISS is huge and you can find some ‘quiet time’ if you need it...”
And you may be refreshed to find out that NASA doesn't officially have a ‘no wanking’ policy. Flight surgeons have advised astronauts to “self-stim” to prevent prostate infections, since male ejaculation relies on the prostate for about one-third of the deal, and a build up of prostate fluid can lead to inflammation and acute prostatitis (sorta the male equivalent of a UTI).
But while the need to cum is there, the desire to cum – known as ‘libido’ by doctors and people from the seventies – may not be. Testosterone in male astronauts is greatly lessened during their time in space – only to return back to normal once they come back. Is that how these extremely physically fit astronauts protect themselves from a truly titanic case of blue balls? This, too, is a greatly under-researched topic.
According to a paper published in The Journal Of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2012*: “To date, the only available human space flight data [recording levels of testosterone] has come from four crew members on a short-duration Space Shuttle flight conducted in the early 1990s. After 4–5 days of flight, in-flight serum, urinary, and salivary testosterone concentrations decreased by 50, 25, and 95%, respectively, compared with pre-flight levels.”
95%? That’s loads. And while research has shown that low testosterone decreases libido in just over a quarter of men, if you double that up with the whole soft dick thing, the fantasies of space sex start to look a little different.
Importantly, zero gravity also means that whenever two people try to touch each other, they’re liable to send each other hurtling through the air. But they could just hug or hold hands as they bone, right? And it would appear so, yes, but in the act of Doing It, the natural friction, exercise, and increased blood flow - not to mention the worst case of performance anxiety ever - would lead to a whole lot of sweat and since there’s no natural convection knocking about, the beads of sweat would start flying off them and holding in the air in gross little globules… leaving the two of you rutting in the air, exhausted, limp, dry, being drenched with each others globules of grubby, almost-certainly equipment-damaging sweat.
Despite what films like creepy Chris Pratt space film Passengers – described by one reviewer as “a fantasy of Stockholm syndrome, in which the captured eventually identifies and even loves the captor” – may tell us, sex in space probably isn’t a major concern for astronauts right now.
“Even though [the astronauts] are living up there for months at a time, the relationship is not 'we're friends and roommates hanging out,' but 'we are highly trained professionals doing a job,'” said Paul Root Wolpe, the Director of Emory University's Center for Ethics and a senior bioethicist at NASA, to Motherboard. “I do think there is a time when sexuality in space is going to have to be addressed … I'm just not sure it's time yet.”
But for argument’s sake, let’s say it worked. Let’s say you and a partner fucked to completion – the propulsive nature of ejaculation (travelling, on average, at roughly 28mph from your bollocks out your urethra) means that the actual act of spunking should be unhindered** (although if some of the cum were to leave the body without entering another (or a tissue, I guess) the cum would, thanks to hydrogen bonding, be held in a ball and float around, stretching and retracting in what “graceful movement”) – and – somehow dodging the myriad radioactive elements that could greatly fuck up your progress - you guys got pregnant. What then?
“Pregnancy in space would be faced with many challenges,” says Lehnhardt, “from radiation exposure for the fetus to delivering a baby in a microgravity environment. But even if a baby could be born in space, how would they develop normal muscles and bones?”
We’ve yet to send pregnant mums up into space just yet, but, in 2001, biologists Jeffrey Alberts of Indiana University and April Ronca of the NASA Ames Research Center aimed to do something close(ish), sending twenty pregnant rats into space to determine some of the effects the zero-gravity environment had on the fetuses. The results were promising with all of the babies born healthily and progressing as normal - with space-born rat babies taking only slightly longer to learn how to roll onto their feet from their backs in water than those earth-born – but given how stupid human babies are compared to the babies of almost every other animal, it probably isn’t just the physical aspect of space-birth that we need to worry about.
In the brilliant New Yorker essay ‘Why are babies so dumb if humans are so smart?’, Maria Konnikova writes:
“Humans belong to the subset of mammals, called viviparous mammals, that give live birth to their young. This means that infants must grow to a mature enough state inside the body to be born, but they can’t be so big that they are unable to come out. This leads to a trade-off: the more intelligent an animal is, the larger its head generally is, but the birth canal imposes an upper limit on just how large that head can be before it gets stuck. The brain, therefore, must keep maturing, and the head must continue growing, long after birth. The more intelligent an animal will eventually be, the more relatively immature its brain is at birth.”
So one may assume that space-born human babies would struggle considerably more than space-born rat babies, at least initially, anyway. Or else – since smarter brains are extra thirsty for blood – perhaps the extra blood flow to the brain (multiplied by unpredictable mutations caused continued exposure to radioactivity) could create a race of physically feeble/intellectually superior space-born super-humans that will may save or destroy all of us...
“For the future of space exploration, we will eventually have to develop a robust human sexuality/reproduction research program,” says Lehnhardt. “If we truly want to colonise other planets and become a space-faring species, having babies in space will be essential.”
* ‘Long-Duration Space Flight and Bed Rest Effects on Testosterone and Other Steroids’ by Scott M. Smith, Martina Heer, Zuwei Wang, Carolyn L. Huntoon, and Sara R. Zwart, published in The Journal Of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism; 2012
** after researching the opportunity for ejaculation to propel an astronaut through the air via conservation of momentum we found out that, yeah, it would move a 13-stone man about backwards at a rate of around 0.00091451391374373696905mph. Maths below: