A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Has anyone ever had sex in space?

February 28, 1997

Dear Cecil:

Cute introductions be damned. Has anyone ever had sex in space? Go ahead, tell me the NASA folks themselves never wanted to know what it would be like, or whether it would even be possible.

According to my 1995 copy of The World Almanac, U.S. shuttle crews have enjoyed mixed company since 1983, and a married couple flew on Endeavor's September 1992 mission. The almanac also shows — and I'm not suggesting anything — that the human race has been launching at least two at a time since 1964.

How many weeks cooped up in a spacecraft can anyone take before boredom, isolation, stress, and la difference set in? (Oops — pardon my heterocentrism.) Heck, it wouldn't surprise me if astronauts did it strictly out of scientific curiosity.

I suppose a less scrupulous inquirer, in an attempt to bolster popular belief in clandestine space boffs, might point out that a U.S. senator and a U.S. congressman have flown shuttle missions. Rest assured I would never stoop so low.

Please tell me our space program is still a pioneer of science, paving our way toward a happy life among the stars. I know long-term space travel isn't exactly around the corner, but don't we want to know whether future space workers will be able to have normal or near-normal existences during long stretches in free fall? Is there any reason to believe zero G would hinder reproduction? I mean, if sperm couldn't tell up from down. …

So anyway, Cecil, has one of our finest chuckled and said, "The things I do for my country?"

Cecil replies:

You know, Caller ID is starting to be a real hindrance in my line of work. I don't know for a fact that they have a sign taped by the NASA switchboard saying, "No calls from C. Adams. Dude be wack." But it does seem like it takes a lot longer than it used to for them to pick up the phone.

Be that as it may, we did succeed in speaking to Mike. At a loss for a subtle way to broach the topic, we pretty much blurted it out: "Mike! Sex in space! Hosing amongst the asteroids! Fact or fantasy?" (Actually, I didn't say "hosing amongst the asteroids." But I should have.)

There was a pause. "Not in the U.S. program," said Mike at last. "It's highly unlikely it would even be attempted in the space shuttle. You have five to seven astronauts on a mission. You can't turn around without bumping into someone."

Wouldn't stop some people I know. Still, this was what I expected to hear. Then Mike made a strategic error. "The astronauts are considered to be on duty 24 hours a day," he said. "I don't think they would think of such an activity as professional."

Professional! C'mon, Mike, I read The Right Stuff. These guys were test pilots! At age 19 they were buzzing the tower! Most of them would consider it their solemn duty to, you know, push the envelope. I mean, how would you guys on the ground know? It's not like they'd leave the electrodes on.

Mike didn't have a good answer for this. He also declined to venture an opinion about what those wacky Russkies had been up to. On the question of whether deep-space sex was even possible, he was agnostic. "There's so much about microgravity we don't know," he said. "They have trouble maintaining plant growth …"

But Mike, that's just it! I said. It's our scientific duty to advance the frontiers of knowledge! (The same general line of BS occurs to everyone who raises this issue.)

"Sounds like you're volunteering," Mike said.

Mike, I said, you send me up, I'll do my best for my country. I'd even bring my own Lava Lamp. (I love this job, I really do.) Then I hung up. I figured my FBI file was fat enough already.

So, not the most definitive answer I ever gave. I mean, to be blunt, who said you needed two people for sex? But there are limits to what even Cecil can hope to know.

Sex in space, continued

Dear Cecil:

Re your column on sex in space, I don't know if this helps, but I found a report at http://tinyurl.com/Chuck-s-Weird-World. [Editor's note: Link has changed over the years. See update.]  It seems pretty authentic, i.e., none of the sophomoric gags that usually indicate a hoax. Dunno if this helps.

Cecil replies:

Yes, this definitely sounds like the real thing. The report, which purports to be a scientific account of attempts to determine the feasibility of sex at zero G, is posted on a Web site entitled "Chuck's Weird World." You just know this has got to be a major depository of official government documents. The report is right next to the supposed radio transcript of the last moments of the Challenger astronauts (Oh, look! The shuttle blew up! We are falling into the ocean! I am so bummed!), which we've previously determined to be a hoax. Also on the page I see Chuck has what purports to be a picture of Kurt Cobain's head after he blew his brains out. No kidding. Pretty yucky. Where people come up with this stuff I don't want to know.

Still, we're nothing if not thorough here at the Straight Dope. I called NASA back. My friend Mike was not in. Or rather Mike didn't answer his phone. Told you I was having problems with caller ID. So I talked to James instead. I swear I could hear this guy's eyes roll. James repeated the standard line, namely that nobody in the U.S. program had ever had sex in space, and they certainly hadn't conducted experiments on it, and the nearest thing he could think of to a sex experiment that they had conducted was one time when they sent up some fish embryos — but even those were fertilized before the flight, and anyway it's not like anybody's going to make big money selling videos of humping fish. (I know you didn't ask about videos, but I expect to see them show up on Chuck's Weird World any day. Also, to forestall any further mailings on this subject, I've already heard the joke about "Ride Sally Ride.")

So now you're saying, another massive government cover-up. Absolutely. Tell me this doesn't sound authentic: "The number of married couples currently involved in proposals for long-term projects on the U.S. space station has grown considerably in recent years. This raises the serious question of how such couples will be able to carry out normal marital relations without the aid of gravity." Yeah, like they're going to explode if they can't wait till they get back. My idea: send up couples with small children. They're already used to the celibate life.

Back to the report. Ten, ah, reproductive modalities were allegedly tried. These involved (1) an elastic belt holding the partners together, (2) an inflatable tunnel, and (3) various, how shall we say, grips. All had their drawbacks. "It was difficult to obtain the necessary thrusting motion," blah, blah, blah. Right. Give me ten minutes and some Velcro, and I bet you I'd figure something out.

Oh, yeah. At the end of the report is this incredible line of baloney about partnerless subjects who were provided with a "manipulator" connected to a "two-hidden-layer back-error propagation neural network" for use as a "unisexual device." You say this doesn't reflect any of the "sophomoric gags that usually indicate a hoax," Andy, and in this you are undoubtedly right. Show me the sophomore who can spell "propagation." Then again, looking at the situation in its totality, you can't deny there's some satisfaction in thinking, my tax dollars at work.

Sex in space, continued (absolute last time we write about this)

Dear Cecil:

Regarding the recent discussion of sex in space, I have here the book Liftoff by Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 command module pilot. On page 191 he discusses various medical concerns on these long missions. Seems the NASA doctors were concerned that the crew, presumably remaining celibate during their month or two in space, might develop "infected prostate glands that could lead to urinary tract infections." Collins goes on to report that one doctor suggested the crew masturbate regularly, but that at least one crew member ignored this advice. Keep pressing, Cecil. The future of manned space flight may hang in the balance.

Cecil replies:

Now, Jason. What Collins says is, "One doctor advised regular masturbation, advice [Skylab crew member] Joe [Kerwin] ignored." He doesn't say other crew members didn't ignore it. On the next page he writes, "There was no sex on Skylab," and still further along, in a discussion of the recreational possibilities of space, he says, "And lovemaking! I don't think any astronauts have yet been privileged to sample the ultimate use of weightlessness." It is clear from the context he's talking about sex involving two parties, not masturbation. But if you think I'm calling NASA to ask about this again, you're nuts.

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