[FPSPACE] Sex in Space--WPost
Dwayne Allen Day
Thu, 14 Sep 2000 23:31:55 -0400 (EDT)
Okay, this is a loooong article. But Kathy Sawyer is a serious space
writer, not a hack. She even mentions the ridiculous book that appeared
earlier this year. I'm reposting the entire article for those of you who
don't have easy web access.
Sexual Revolutions in Zero Gravity
By Kathy Sawyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2000; Page A01
Their bodies pressed together, the two lovers tremble in
synchronicity. They cling like this for about half a minute, their
extremities aflutter. Then they part. It's time enough. They have created
new life in space.
Not from an X-rated sci-fi flick, the scene occurred in real life aboard a
space shuttle in the summer of 1994 and made history of a sort. The
romancers, small freshwater fish from Japan called Medaka, hold the
distinction of being the first and only vertebrate creatures ever known to
mate successfully in the weightlessness of space. There is a video of the
event, not to mention space-born offspring, to prove it.
The public has long been fascinated with the free-flying romantic
potential of weightlessness. And yet, the textbook on sex in space remains
Advocates of human spaceflight in the United States and other spacefaring
nations have long known that, sooner or later, they would have to address
the sensitive issue more directly. With the advent of the $63 billion,
120-ton International Space Station, some researchers hope, the excuses
for evasion may soon fade away.
The arrival of the station's first residents, set for early November,
heralds a new era in which people will learn to live and work in space for
extended periods, its advocates say. The facility is designed to serve as
a steppingstone to the solar system. But humanity's ability to spend years
in transit across the void, or to colonize other worlds, could ultimately
depend on an ability to reproduce and raise healthy children, as well as
plants and animals, in those environments. Much more than voyeurism will
be at stake, then, in the pursuit of understanding spaceflight's effects
on sex, reproduction and development in living organisms.
"There is nothing that suggests there would be any problem with humans
mating" in microgravity, according to University of Texas
obstetrician-gynecologist Richard Jennings, former chief of flight
medicine at NASA's Johnson Space Center, now a consultant to the astronaut
corps. Eventually, "issues of reproduction and development will be very
important" not only in zero-gravity, but also in the varying gravities of
the moon and Mars.
As women have joined men in space in increasing numbers and for longer
stays, rumors and speculation have swirled around the topic of that most
intimate of orbital rendezvous. But for the foreseeable future, officials
and researchers emphasize, critters other than humans will be the only
ones testing their procreative proclivities in orbit. NASA has never
sanctioned any experiments in which humans attempt sex and has no plans to
do so. And astronauts reject as ludicrous any suggestion that they would
indulge in zero-G hanky-panky.
Reports of actual orbital consummations should be viewed with the same
credulity reserved for tabloid tales of a secret city on the moon,
officials say. Earlier this year, a new book by a French author described
what purported to be an official experiment conducted aboard a space
shuttle mission in February 1996. It claimed that male-female astronaut
couples had tested 10 different sexual positions most involving
restraints such as an inflatable tunnel and wall-mounted straps. NASA
officials issued a withering, categorical denial, noting that the story
has circulated for years on the Internet. One clue to its falsity was that
the flight in question carried seven men and no women.
In September 1992, astronauts Mark Lee and Jan Davis created a burst of
curiosity as the first married couple in space. NASA ordinarily does not
put husband and wife on the same crew, but the pair got married after
being assigned to the shuttle flight. They worked separate 12-hour shifts
in orbit and, by all accounts, were all business.
At least two women who flew aboard Soviet-era space stations have been
targets of published reports about sexual liaisons aloft. One was a
British candy factory chemist who won her 1991 space adventure in a
bank-sponsored contest and allegedly was featured in a cosmonaut video in
which she floated around in a pink nightie. The other was Russian
aerobatics pilot Svetlana Savitskaya, the first woman to join men in
orbit. In 1982, she spent a month with four men on the Salyut-7 space
station and reported being greeted at the hatch with an apron. Both women
said their behavior aloft was strictly professional.
Scientists note that babies have been born to men and women after they
have flown in space, showing that the physiological processes can remain
healthy postflight. Early in the space age, the Soviets found the question
pressing enough that Valentina Tereshkova, plucked from a job at a textile
factory to be catapulted into space in 1963, "came back, mated with a
cosmonaut, and produced a healthy baby," according to a senior NASA
biologist. "I'm told it was by design." (The couple got married along the
way, historians note, but soon separated.)
Because of the elaborate physical monitoring that took place during the
early days of manned spaceflight, in which sensors recorded astronauts'
most intimate bodily functions, NASA sources say they can reliably report
that male hydraulics work in weightlessness. And studies also have long
shown that there are "no operational gynecological or reproductive
constraints" to prevent women from being successful space explorers.
However, nobody knows yet what effects prolonged sojourns off Earth will
have on human reproduction and development. Flight doctors and
developmental biologists have pinpointed areas of concern.
A relatively well-documented threat is cosmic radiation, against which
adequate shielding for fetal development has not been developed. The
radiation exposure aboard the space station during a pregnancy, for
example, "could be 60 to 80 times the maximum allowed, enough to cause
retardation," Jennings said. Ground-based studies have indicated radiation
has no effect on libido. But researchers want more data on such questions
as the effectiveness of various contraceptive methods in reduced gravity
and the possible need to freeze the sperm and eggs of future space
One reason for the dearth of information on sex in space is that NASA
biological research in general has been lacking. In 1998, a panel of
independent scientists concluded that NASA's data on humans were so
haphazard that they "are incomplete and even potentially misleading." Only
in recent years has the space agency provided significant funding for
biology and begun collaborating with the National Institutes of Health.
But space-based biological experiments of any kind are devilishly
difficult at best, according to NASA flight programs scientist Louis
Ostrach. Developmental biologists up to now have never had access to
weightlessness for long enough periods, with sophisticated enough
equipment, to conduct systematic research.
With growing evidence of gravity's effects on life's basic processes,
right down to the cellular level, outside experts have urged NASA to give
high priority to space-based experiments on complex animals. "It's one of
our big goals, to develop the habitat to support multiple generations of
mammals on orbit," said Ostrach. "But it's an extraordinary engineering
The brief experiments conducted so far were widely separated in time and
were often plagued with technical problems, affording mere snapshots at
different windows along life's continuum: pregnant rats, frog eggs,
embryonic mice and newborn rats. There are smidgens of data on fruit flies
and worms, sea urchin sperm and guppy eggs, snails and sword-tailed fish.
"All kinds of little critters have had some exposure," said Joan Vernikos,
who retired last month as NASA's chief life scientist. "But it's all just
bits and pieces. . . . What this research has done is just slightly open
the curtains and let us glimpse into this big wide world of discovery."
The findings, though inconclusive, are provocative. For example:
A wheat experiment conducted aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1998
set a record for "seed to seed" reproduction through two
generations. "That was the first time we were able to demonstrate that an
organism any organism was able to reproduce and develop normally through
a life cycle," said David Liskowsky, head of fundamental biology programs
Already-pregnant rats in one experiment delivered much smaller litters in
space than those on the ground. In another, they showed no such
differences, but females in labor required more contractions to deliver
the offspring in weightlessness.
The brains of mice embryos in microgravity intriguingly grew more cells in
the part of the brain responsible for higher thought processes.
Experiments on one-celled organisms and sea urchins suggest that zero-G
may actually improve sperms' ability to swim.
Baby rats that went through a certain phase of development in orbit never
learned how to "right" themselves properly after being rolled on their
backs. But a tadpole experiment indicated that some space-caused defects
can be reversed.
A key question bearing on prospects for extraterrestrial child-rearing, as
well as on basic research, Liskowsky said, is whether there is a "critical
period" during which gravity-sensing organs may be permanently impaired if
not exposed to gravity.
The simple mating of the Medaka fish in orbit required Olympian feats of
orchestration by a team led by Kenichi Ijiri of the University of
Tokyo. Fish sent to the U.S. Skylab in the 1970s had gone berserk in
weightlessness, looping frantically. Mating was out of the question. Other
candidates, such as mice and rats, when floating free would seek
desperately to cling to cage walls or perch birdlike on the nearest
Through a selection process rivaling that for human space fliers, complete
with test flights in jets and eye tests, the Japanese finally found a
strain of fish that did not go loopy in microgravity and would orient
their bodies for sexual contact based on a light shone into their tank to
mimic the rising sun.
Ijiri noted that the two Medaka couples, though experienced lovers, failed
at initial attempts in orbit. Also, he discovered, the fish set a record
for "jealous" pecking attacks on each other, with a female sometimes
attacking a couple during mating.
On the third flight day, the orange-red fish thrilled their mentors by
mating during a live video downlink. "I could see with my own eyes this
dramatic scene," Ijiri said.
Ultimately, eight offspring were born in orbit. The four Medaka pioneers,
"having overcome . . . weightlessness, and the complexity of love and
hatred," lived to become great-grandparents.