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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Column: Making whoopee in zero-g

I would be a terrible astronaut.

The trip to outer space would be hard for me. Astronauts leaving Earth go from feeling gravity to zero-gravity in less than a second. I don’t even like Six Flags roller coasters. I would miss life on Earth too much. I love hiking and kayaking and tabby cats and there’s none of that in space.

A short trip to the space station could be fun, but now NASA is planning a multiple-year mission to Mars. A Mars trip means about three years in a cramped ship with only a couple other astronauts. Unless I get to share a private cabin with Captain Kirk, no thanks.

“By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth,” said President Obama during a press conference in April. “A landing on Mars will follow.”

While NASA engineers build new spacecrafts and solve the problem of transporting heavy fuel, I wonder about the personal lives of astronauts during the mission. What happens when your co-workers are your only human companions?

Dr. Al Harrison, professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis, has studied how humans react to isolated environments like Antarctica or outer space. He said NASA uses conditions on Earth – like underwater research vessels – to prepare astronauts for separation from loved ones. Still, long missions are tough on morale.

“There can be a sense of hopelessness when a family emergency arises and there is nothing you can do about it,” Harrison said. “No accompanying the ambulance to the hospital, no sitting by a death bed and no sweet talking the principal into letting your kids back into school,”

Life in space, much like military deployment, could be rough on marriages.

“When the astronaut gets back, it may be difficult to re-establish pre-departure patterns,” Harrison said. “If the wife is away and the husband makes all the decisions regarding child care, menus, etc., it may be difficult for the husband to give this up.”

While these astronauts would be well-trained, mature adults, there is another problem: these would be mature adults. Celibacy may be difficult. When Obama revealed his plans for a Mars trip, some speculated that astronauts traveling to Mars could have sex to relieve sexual frustration.

Dr. Jason Kring, a professor from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, told The Telegraph, “The potential round-trip mission to Mars could take three years. It doesn’t make sense to assume that these men and women are going to have no thoughts of it [sex!] for three years.”

Sex in space could be more than recreational. Space research allows for the study of human anatomy in a unique environment, and sex in space could lead to advances in medicine. Harrison said the topic has always been controversial.

“Sex in space has always been a hot topic and one that is nightmare for NASA’s public relations experts and lawyers,” Harrison said. “NASA is dependent on Congress for funding and ‘sex in space’ is something that could get people writing their congresspersons angry letters.”

As far as we know, no human has had sex in space. Back in 1991, NASA sent a married couple to the space station, but they probably didn’t get it on; close-quarters with other astronauts (and heart-rate monitoring by NASA) would have been a mood-killer.

The physical effects of zero-gravity could also crush libido.

Before astronauts adapt to zero-g, they usually barf. “Space sickness” is jokingly measured on the Garn scale (named after up-chucking astronaut Jake Garn. One “Garn” means severe vomiting.). Zero-g wreaks havoc on bodily functions, which means excessive flatulence and a puffy face from the redistribution of fluids. Weightlessness also means lower blood pressure (bad news for men-folk).

Sex in space, like sex on land, could result in more tension than it solves.

“The real problem here is not sex but relationships,” Harrison said. “What happens if halfway out, a person decides he or she wants a divorce, or one astronaut’s husband has an affair with another astronaut’s wife, or someone gets jilted?”

At that point, NASA could start its own reality show. You know, for science.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT thinks we shouldn’t be too concerned about sexual tension in space. After all, Spock only mated every seven years and he managed. E-mail her your column ideas at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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