It’s naturally part of every human space exploration but remains taboo. Here’s what we do and don’t know about cosmic sex.
German astronaut Matthias Maurer breezes through interviews, rarely missing a beat when he answers journalists’ questions around his upcoming six-month trip to the International Space Station (ISS). But one topic throws even Maurer off momentarily: sex drive in space.
“We haven’t talked about this, because it’s a professional environment,” he replied to DW’s question on whether astronauts exchange insights on how to handle their desires.
Thanks to commercial space flights, more people are entering the cosmos than ever before. Just this past week,SpaceX launched four tourists through the Earth’s orbit. Ten years from now, the first crew of astronauts will likely set off on a mission to Mars that could last multiple years.
Sexuality is intrinsic to human nature and inevitably factors into space missions. But while space science is progressing, our understanding of sex in space is still basic.
NASA, the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, insists that no humans have had sex in space, and American astronauts famously avoid the topic. The few experiments that have been conducted on space sex focused on animals, not humans.
“We need to know more about sexuality in space if we are serious about long-duration space flights. Sexuality is very possibly going to be a part of that,” Paul Root Wolpe, who spent 15 years as a senior bioethicist at NASA, tells DW.
German astronaut Matthias Maurer told DW that there is no official training on sexuality in space
Sex in space matters
Addressing sexuality in space isn’t just important because it’s what’s on everyone’s mind. Asked by DW whether sexuality is part of an astronaut’s training, Matthias Maurer replied: “No, but maybe it should be.”
“If we look at sexual health as a core component of health, it’s important to understand the conditions we are putting individuals in,” Saralyn Mark, former senior medical adviser to NASA, tells DW.
Sex and masturbation are linked to physical and mental health — that doesn’t change in space.
Ejaculation is essential for men to avoid the risk of bacteria building up in their prostate, and orgasms have been shown to relieve stress and anxiety as well as improve sleep quality, which likely helps during a high-pressure space mission.
Has it already happened?
We can only speculate, but it seems likely that sex in space has already happened. There are two space missions that jump out as candidates for the first cosmic coitus.
In 1982, Russian cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, only the second-ever woman in space, joined the Soyuz T-7 space mission for eight days. Two male colleagues were already on board when she arrived, making it the first co-ed space mission.
In his book, Höllenritt durch Raum und Zeit (A hellride through time and space), German astronaut Ulrich Walter notes that, according to the team’s doctor, Oleg Georgievich Gazenko, the flight was planned with a sexual encounter in mind.
The second mission in question took place in 1992, when NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavor was launched with a married couple on board. Mark Lee and Jan Davis, both astronauts, met at NASA. They married in secret a year before lift-off. Their joint flight to space was practically their honeymoon.
Svetlana Savitskaya and her colleagues Anatoly Berezovoi and Valentin Lebedev made up the world’s first mixed-sex space crew
How is it different from here on Earth?
So, we can assume that sex in space is a reality. But how is it different to ours on Earth? Let’s start with the basics: sex drive.
The little publicly available information that we have indicates that being in space leads to reduced libido, at least at first.
That’s because microgravity, the weightlessness astronauts experience in space, causes hormonal changes, like decreases in estrogen. Low estrogen levels have been linked to a drop in sex drive.
Unfortunately, most of what we know about hormones in space comes only from tests on men. That’s because only 11.5% of astronauts are female, and the relatively few women who have been to space opted to go on birth control beforehand to avoid menstruation. This makes it tricky to disentangle artificial hormonal changes from those caused by space flight.
Another factor in cosmic sex drive is a change in astronauts’ internal clock.
“When you’re going around the planet right now, every 90 minutes, your circadian rhythms are altered and that alters everything, including your sex hormones and probably your libido,” Mark says.
The science also matches astronaut Walter’s on-site experience. In his book, he writes that, during his short 10-day stay in space, he had no libido.
But there’s hope: According to Walter, astronauts’ sex drive does readjust after a few weeks in space….