by John Sturgeon
When crewed spaceflight in the United States began, it was little more than one person stuffed into a tiny "tin can" and hurled through the atmosphere into a low Earth orbit. Gradually, these early one-person Mercury missions multiplied into two-person Gemini missions with longer flight times and the well-known three-person Apollo missions which involved a few weeks in space and on the surface of another world. The Soviets, in their methodical approach to space, began to orbit a series of space stations beginning with Salyut which enabled their cosmonauts to spend upwards of a couple of months in space. The United States responded with three Skylab missions which had a maximum length of 84 days. The Soviets, in methodical progression, launched the Mir space station in 1981 which allowed routine stays of over six months and extended stays of up to one year. The U.S., in the meantime, had allowed their Skylab to decay in its orbit and disintegrate in favor of building a more permanent and elaborate structure in space. Due to budget constraints and a hostile political climate, NASA was forced to build the station system backwards by building the world's first reusable launch system, the space shuttle or space transportation system before building the orbital platform it was intended to visit. Approval for the station was finally secured in 1984 and work is still progressing on it to this day. The foundations of living and working in space, indeed settling space, had been laid, but without much foresight into the social, human factors which go along with this movement into space.
There is an old joke at NASA, and perhaps even in the Soviet Union, that implies that humans have carried their most fundamental trait to the new environment of space: sexual behavior. Though the early missions, undertaken by lone or small unisexual crews in cramped and restrained environments probably precludes the activity occurring, the length of missions and gender of crews (especially in the United States) has changed significantly, as has the amount of area in which to live and work. NASA currently views the issue of sexual activity between astronauts as none of its business, and perhaps rightly so. If we continue to be committed to a crewed presence in space, leading ultimately to colonies on the Moon and perhaps Mars, or just to orbiting stations, the issue of human sexual behavior must be addressed in all its promise and consequences. This paper will attempt to identify areas which are in need of research and try to offer advice to NASA in formulating a policy on sexual behavior.
What the heck are we doing up there anyway?So you say you want to colonize the solar system? Well, if you're NASA that's exactly what you want to eventually accomplish. It is a very noble and exciting goal, but how do you go about achieving it? Do you, in your driving quest to explore, ignore the concerns and limitations of the biological units (chiefly humans) conducting this exploration in favor of throwing up the next glitzy piece of hardware? Or do you take a more systematic, scientific approach to studying what is the most dangerous and least understood environment known to humanity?
If you are NASA, searching desperately for high-profile missions to keep the funding flowing, you might very well opt for the first choice. And basically, this is what NASA has done: thrown astronauts up one after the other without fully understanding the implications of their own research into the effects of prolonged exposure to microgravity, cosmic radiation, and psychological stress. This may seem to be an unfair characterization of NASA's crewed space efforts, because you can't really know what's going to happen to a human in space until you put one there. Well, NASA has put many humans into space for varying lengths of time and the data which has come back may have severe implications for the agency's long-term plans to establish a permanent human presence in outer space.
The centerpiece for NASA's current plans to establish humanity's presence in space is the proposed (still) international space station, Freedom . In its current conception, a crew of four scientist-astronauts will man the station for up to 90 days. The U.S. has only one close experience to this situation, the fourth mission of Skylab , which lasted 84 days. The Soviets, of course, have much more experience in long-duration space flight, but concerns about their scientific methods has brought their physiological data into question.
With the dawning of the space station era and with a Mars exploration mission a goal, U.S. astronauts will be spending increasing amounts of time in space, in fact they will be living there. These astronauts will not be the homogenous, single sexed crews of the past. These crews will be from several nations and cultures as well as representing both sexes. On prolonged missions, sexual activity can be expected. There are many physiological consequences of living in space, which may have an impact on the sexual activity which can or can be allowed to occur. The following sections will examine what we know about prolonged exposure to microgravity and then use this information to speculate on the most prominent consequence of sex, children.
Space Motion Sickness, or SMS, is one of the most common maladies which afflict astronauts. Approximately two-thirds of all space travelers experience the symptoms of pallor, increased body warmth, cold sweating, nausea and vomiting (Marshall, 1991; Homick & Vanderploeg, 1989). These symptoms are very similar to motion sickness which occurs on Earth, but are not the only symptoms associated with SMS. Unique to SMS are the symptoms of anorexia, lethargy, malaise, and headache (Homick & Vanderploeg, 1989). Tables 1 and 2 indicate the incidence of SMS among U.S. and Soviet space crews.
|Program||Number of Crewmen||Incidence of SMS|
|Apollo-Soyuz Test Project||3||0|
|Program||Number of Crewmen||Incidence of SMS|
|Apollo-Soyuz Test Project||2||2|
(Adapted from Homick & Vanderploeg, 1989)
Researchers use the "sensory conflict" theory to explain why astronauts experience SMS. The astronaut's visual and tactile senses indicate that the body is stable, but the absence of gravity causes the inner ear to send messages indicating that the body is constantly tilting. A June 1991 life sciences mission aboard the space shuttle seems to indicate that over long flights the mammalian brain may adapt to these confused signals, allowing astronauts to gain their "space legs" (Marshall, 1991, p. 1491; Homick and Vanderploeg, 1989).
SMS, while not life-threatening, is very uncomfortable to have to deal with, especially as it comes at the critical early stages of a mission. Several preventative measures have been examined, including training, drugs, and biofeedback, but only limited success has been achieved. Researchers continue to try to pin down the causes of this ailment in the hopes that it can one day be effectively eliminated (Homick & Vanderploeg, 1991).
Muscles are essentially designed for gravity. They rely on gravity to maintain normal strength, mass, and function. Conditions of microgravity can therefore be expected to lead to muscle atrophy because of the decreased load demand placed on them. This atrophication has been observed since the earliest crewed space missions (Huntoon, Johnson, & Cintron, 1989).
There are two possible explanations for the causes of muscle atrophy. The first possibility is that the cells simply shrink like any muscle when it is not exercised. The second possibility is potentially more threatening. Observations of rats aloft for a number of days show evidence of changes at the cellular level which may be longer lasting and ultimately irreversible (Frazer, 1991(a)).
The pooling of fluids which occurs in microgravity causes less oxygen to be delivered to the lower body. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue which requires oxygen to function. In the absence of oxygen, fiber damage and even cellular death can occur. Rats have been observed to have nerve and cellular damage when this fluid shift occurs (Frazer, 1991(a)).
Postflight problems attributed to atrophy, such as fainting and reduced physical fitness, can be helped by daily exercise while on orbit, but evidence would suggest that progressive atrophy is not retarded by this process (Garshnek, 1989). On the ground, it is typically weeks to months before recovery is made to pre-flight levels. The recovery process itself is not without its hazards. Animals in the recovery phase have shown a tendency to form blood clots. "When activity resumes in normal gravity, the body interprets this as a trauma and begins clot formation," explains Danny Riley, a researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin (as quoted in Frazer, 1991(a), p. 15).
Regeneration of muscle tissue may also be adversely affected by high-energy radiation, raising the possibility of irreversible muscle damage on long-duration missions to Mars. More study needs to be done on the effects of radiation on regeneration as well as the underlying causes of atrophy (Frazer, 1991(a)).
One of the effects of microgravity noted earlier was the pooling of fluids in the upper body. This pooling of fluids tricks the kidneys into perceiving there is too much fluid and so they increase their functioning. This results in a loss of up to two liters of fluids, including blood. The dropping fluid level gives the heart less and less blood to pump and it responds by shrinking in size (Frazer, 1991(a)).
Over the short-term, cardiovascular adaptation seems to go fairly well, but long-term data is scarce and conclusions can't be drawn. The real problems seem to occur upon the astronauts return to Earth-normal gravity. "Once the astronaut is back under Earth-normal gravity, there's a much greater demand on a system that is suddenly less able to handle it," says Carl Gunnar Blomqvist, a cardiologist and member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Space Biology and Medicine (as quoted in Frazer, 1991(a), p. 17). This increased demand combined with lower output makes it difficult for the brain to get enough blood.
Recovery of the cardiovascular system to normal functioning is achieved through proper medical care and time with relatively little difficulty, but the effects of long-duration flight are not well understood. Data from Soviet experiments lacks the detailed measurements necessary to address this area, so no definite conclusions can be drawn, especially concerning the possibility of cellular-level changes taking place (Frazer, 1991(a)).
Loss of calcium has been observed on most long-duration spaceflights. On Skylab , calcium loss through urine was observed to be at least 200mg per day. Heel bone loss was noted to be as much as 7.9 percent (Huntoon, et. al., 1989). Soviet reports show that the tibia of one cosmonaut shrank as much as 15 percent over a 237-day flight (Frazer, 1991(a)).
The concern with bone mineral loss is not so much during flight, but upon the return to Earth. The long-term effects of bone loss again are not understood well, but available evidence indicates that replacement of bone after spaceflight may not be complete and the effects may be cumulative. In addition, recovery seems to be time related, working well up to a certain point, but then ceasing to function normally. This could mean that the bone cells adaptation to microgravity may become permanent (Frazer, 1991(a)).
The exact mechanism of bone mineral loss during microgravity is not known. Because of the lack of opportunity to study the process in space, NASA has had to rely on bedrest studies. The information gained from these studies may not be able to be extrapolated to space because of microgravity effects on fluid shifts and sodium excretion, which may be related to bone loss in space (Frazer, 1991(a)).
The stress of the space environment may also play a role in bone demineralization. When under stressful conditions, the body releases a variety of chemicals which suppress bone formation. "It's also possible that the different conditions of spaceflight interfere with electrical signals generated in the bone to trigger bone formation, or that the decrease in stimulus causes the bone resorption breakdown and absorption into the bloodstream cells to proliferate at a greater rate," says Christopher Cann, a member of the radiology department at the University of California, San Francisco (as quoted in Frazer, 1991(a), p. 18). Gravity-controlled space facilities may ultimately be necessary to fully understand the bone loss process.
The move towards permanently settling space will eventually lead to longer and longer stays in space. Human beings, being the sexual creatures that they are, will eventually have sex. Ultimately, through planning or accident, children will be conceived in space.
Currently, there is little data which would preclude successful conception of a child in space. The physical act itself, while being somewhat more difficult because of what Ben Bova (1986) calls a "rendezvous and docking problem" (p. 29) is not impossible and may be even more enjoyable because of the freedom of movement each partner has. There is no data to indicate that a male's sperm count decreases in space, or that ovulation in a female would be abnormal (Colón and Colón, 1992). Still, it is this lack of knowledge which is most disturbing to some in the field. Lynn Wiley, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California at Davis commented that she is "surprised spaceflight is legal. If you tried to get people to work in fields, or in office buildings with as little knowledge of what working there is doing to their health as we have of what spaceflight is doing to astronauts, you'd never get away with it" (as quoted in Frazer, 1991(b), p. 43).
Colón and Colón (1992) have speculated on what might be the scenario should a child be conceived in outer space. Initial fertilization seems to be no problem. Biosatellite II experiments with amoebae showed no motility impairment and this would seem to indicate that the male sperm cell would likewise be motile.
It is after implantation, when cellular differentiation into a human occurs, that concern arises. The growth of the embryo may be adversely affected by a microgravity environment. Neurological and other systems, which have evolved over time in an Earth gravity environment, may be adversely affected by the lack of environmental cues (Frazer, 1991(b)).
Mitosis, the process of complete chromosomal reproduction, has shown some inconsistent chromosomal breaks due to ionizing radiation (Colón and Colón, 1992). For a full pregnancy term, the maximum recommended radiation dosage is no more than 5 rem . Over the course of a pregnancy on board the space station, the fetus could be exposed to as much as 30 rem . "Until you can show me some way of dealing with that radiation, I won't even consider the possibility of creating and raising children in space," says Richard Jennings, chief of the flight medicine clinic at Johnson Space Center (as quoted in Frazer, 1991(b), p. 45).
Perhaps one of the greatest potential problems is whether or not a child born and raised in space will be able to return to Earth. Colón and Colón (1992) have speculated that activities such as raising the head, sitting up and standing would be greatly accelerated in a microgravity environment. However, in a microgravity environment, one can expect bone loss, muscle breakdown, and artificially stimulated extension or growth of muscle or bone, which would be detrimental even to an adult (Colón and Colón, 1992).
Also apparent in microgravity is the lack of stimulation of the otoliths in the ear's semicircular canal. Otoliths provide the necessary sensory input for balance, and only work in a gravity environment. Lack of stimulation of these otoliths as a fetus develops may preclude the child from learning to cope with Earth's gravity (Colón and Colón, 1992; Frazer, 1991(b)).
This could conceivably lead to, as Frazer (1991(b)) suggests, the creation of a new human form, "homo spaciens " (p. 45). The homo spacien would be better suited to space than normal humans, but would forever be unable to survive on Earth-gravity worlds. "I find it a frightening and deeply disturbing, yet fascinating, possibility," says Wiley (as quoted in Frazer, 1991(b), p. 45).
Ultimately, "if we are sincere about living in space--as we seem to be--then we can't afford to do things haphazardly," says Wiley (as quoted in Frazer, 1991(b), p. 45). The research to support humanity's move out into space is not being done, and that could lead to unfortunate consequences, especially for the children.
"Subject of sex in space remains taboo" reads the headline of a recent article in the newspaper (Date, 1992, p. 6A). The article was about NASA's reluctance to discuss the issue and some researchers who were meeting to do precisely that, discuss sex in space. "The agency isn't interested in the private lives of its employees," NASA spokeswoman Kari Fluegel was quoted as saying (Date, 1992, p. 6A). The issue is just not there yet, was the gist of NASA's explanation of its hands-off approach. The researchers bemoaned NASA's lack of research into human reproduction and fetal development, but they didn't directly address the stickier question which NASA is trying to avoid addressing, and that is the ethics of sex in space.
When discussing ethics, one often comes up with more questions than answers. In the space missions of the future, the astronauts will no longer be macho, heroic test pilots, but relatively normal, human scientists who have the same drives, needs, and wants as anyone else. But they will also bring with them their own unique view of reality based on the belief systems they were raised in. Each culture, subculture, group, and individual has their own way of interpreting reality and organize their behaviors to support this reality. In the era of the international space station and fiscal restraints, more and more diverse groups of individuals and groups will be coming together in space.
The diversity of these groups and their belief systems creates a problem when dealing with the issue of sex. No two groups deal with the issue in the same way and each group has its own way of dealing with the ethics of sex. In the United States, the veritable "melting pot" of cultures, religions, and ideas, there are a myriad of ways of dealing with the ethics of sex. In religion alone, the U.S. has almost every type represented, from Christianity to Buddhism, Islam to Judaism, the U.S. is covered. In Christianity alone, there are several different subgroups who all tend to deal with sex in slightly different ways. How is this going to affect the members of the space station and the public who watch their exploits?
What group should have authority over the ethics which will guide the space station's crew? Does any group have the right to dictate the moral conduct of the crew with regards to sexuality? Especially in the land of secular humanism and individualism?
"People are obviously thinking about it," says Royce Dalby, editor of Ad Astra . "But NASA is so puritanical that the subject is difficult for them to broach" (as quoted in Broad, 1992, p. C9). The subject, of course, is sex in space. But it is not just NASA who is experiencing anxiety attacks over the topic of sex.
Human sex has woefully little research done on it even at the ground level. Fausto-Sterling (1992) believes this to be a result of conservative America's fear of homosexuality. Senator Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) has consistently opposed National Institutes of Health (NIH) surveys on sexual behavior, saying "The NIH funds these sex surveys...to 'cook the books', so to speak, in terms of presenting 'scientific facts'--in order to do what? To legitimize homosexual lifestyles of course" (as quoted in Fausto-Sterling, 1992, p. 30). With this kind of attitude so prevalent, it is no wonder NASA is somewhat skittish over the topic of sex in space.
In order to achieve the goal of permanently settling space, NASA must eventually confront this issue, especially in light of the very real possibility of pregnancies in space. NASA's stated position of not being interested in the private lives of its employees may seem satisfying to this culture which values privacy and individual rights above all else, but the inherent dangers demand some sort of framework to guide the process of sexual relations in space.
Yvonne Clearwater (1985) wrote "[i]n space, regardless of crew gender composition, if we lock people up for 90-day periods, we must plan for the possibility of intimate behavior" (p. 43). NASA's job is not to be "judges of morality", but to provide as comfortable a living and working area as possible (Clearwater, 1985, p. 43).
The difficulty, however, arises from the fact that the crew of any future space mission will be multinational, multi-gendered, and from widely divergent personal and professional backgrounds. This will create tensions which will be greatly magnified by the environmental stressors. The creation of a "singles bar atmosphere", writes Michael Collins, a former astronaut, in his book Mission to Mars , "a charged mixture of sexually unattached competitors, would be a disaster" (as quoted in Broad, 1992, p. C9).
So what should NASA do? If NASA bans all sexual activity, this certainly will add to tensions and could ultimately lead to violent sexual acts. If NASA maintains a "hands-off" approach, will it ultimately lead to a "singles bar atmosphere" with all its concomitant problems as Michael Collins suggests? Clearwater (1985) was told by the military during a study on an underground military complex that could face as much as a two-year lockdown that she should assume that sex simply would not occur because of the level of professionalism of the soldiers. Is this a realistic expectation? NASA has so far had no sexual incidents, even on the multi-gendered shuttle flights. These missions, however, are short and have no privacy whatsoever. Barbara Schwartz, a spokeswoman at Johnson Space Center, likened the shuttle experience to "camping out with your seven best friends in a tent--and you can't go outside" (as quoted in Broad, 1992, p. C9).
Michael Collins came up with an interesting suggestion to alleviate the tensions on a long-duration flight to Mars. He advocates sending only married couples on these voyages to better be able to survive the hardships of space. "An element of stability, of old-shoe comfort, would be introduced by having one's husband or wife to fall back on" (as quoted in Broad, 1992, p. C9). While feasible for a Mars flight, it is impractical to expect NASA to maintain a cadre of married astronauts to provide rotational crews for a space station. The potential is also there for a disruption of the marriage due to external stress factors. It is very difficult to live with anyone in such close quarters for an extended period of time.
Ultimately, the real moral and ethical dilemma concerning sex in space is the issue of reproduction. We have already seen that we are woefully unprepared to deal with this issue. It is hard enough to deal with on Earth, much less in space, where the potential for fetal harm is much greater. Additionally, there is the question of whether or not a child born and raised in a microgravity environment can ever be returned to Earth. The disruption and potential scrapping of a mission which would occur if the policy were to immediately return the pregnant woman to Earth may not have dire consequences on a near-Earth space station, but could seriously impinge on a mission to Mars or the Moon.
Because it is inconceivable, in light of their accomplishments and contributions, to ban women on future space missions, these concerns would seem to point to banning sex as the only way to counter these possibilities, at least in the near term. Indeed, if, as Dr. Wiley fears, current contraceptive methods may not be as effective in microgravity as on Earth (Broad, 1992), this possibility gains merit.
It is not realistic, however, to expect normal, healthy professionals with normal, healthy sexual appetites to abstain. The question again becomes what should NASA do?
Since it is unrealistic to expect abstinence, NASA should not demand it. In this way, NASA's "hands off" approach should be continued, but only in this way. NASA should, must undertake research into the effectiveness of contraceptives in outer space. No mission to Mars should be undertaken until the effectiveness of contraceptives can be established. That much at least is owed to the children who might be conceived otherwise. NASA should issue mandatory contraceptive guidelines. No sex should occur without some form of contraception until such time as sufficient research is conducted to allow for safe childbearing and development.
On near-Earth stations, immediate return to Earth should be mandatory for pregnant women. On long flights to Mars, investigations should be made perhaps into the effectiveness of such pills as RU-486. Abortion of the fetus in this manner is highly controversial and emotionally charged, but the potential danger to a child in that environment, the potential of never being able to return to Earth, is far more frightening. This is especially true in the foreseeable future when there will be no infrastructure to support homo spaciens.
Above all else, NASA must focus more of its efforts on sexual reproduction in humans. To do less could preclude our settlement of the universe.
Dr. Patricia A. Santy, a psychiatrist at the University of Texas in Galveston and former flight surgeon at NASA has said of sex in space: " It's foolish and perhaps dangerous to pretend that a long-duration space mission will differ from any office where you have men and women working together. Sex is a normal part of human behavior. It happens in offices. It happens in the Antarctic. It happens wherever you have males and females together" (as quoted in Broad, 1992, p. C9).
The "workplace" in outer space will also be where male and female crewmembers live and recreate as well. There is some concern about the potential for gender stereotyping and intolerance among crewmembers. Cold-climate and submarine confinement studies indicate that small incompatibilities are greatly magnified under these isolated, high-risk conditions (Clearwater, 1985).
Valentin Lebedev, a cosmonaut who spent 211 days in space on board Salyut 7 , illustrates this point in a July 16 diary entry:
The hardest thing during a flight is keeping good relations going with the ground and among the crew. With growing fatigue, there is a danger of serious lapses. There are tense moments, but they cannot be allowed to explode. Otherwise a crack, once it appears, can widen. The flight becomes increasingly difficult. Looking out the window is calming (Lebedev, 1985, p. 28).
The tension which is part of every flight can be turned into anything from sexual harassment to sexual violence.
Neither the Soviets nor the Americans have much experience with women crew members on long-duration missions. The possibilities for inappropriate sexual advances or violence are therefore relatively unknown. Some good news and bad news comes from Antarctic studies and other analogs.
Dr. John Annexstead (1992), an eleven time Antarctic expedition member and two-time expedition leader, has noted the positive effects of women on long Antarctic missions. The crews that had women members seemed to have less competition and the crews got along better. Women in these crews seem to serve a socializing function as well as their mission function. The presence of women seems to normalize the social relations of the confined group, thus cutting down on feelings of dissonance within the group.
Harrison and Connors (1984) reviewed two studies which examined the effects of women on intergroup behavior in exotic environments. In the first study, conditions which elicited conflict between group members of an all-male group, did not do so in an all-female group. This would suggest that women have either higher tolerance or better coping strategies when dealing with stress. The second study, however, found that the introduction of a female into a male group caused destabilizing effects. This could have serious implications on board a space station. If, for instance, on board the space station, with its currently envisioned crew size of four there is one female and three males who are all single, the potential arises for the creation of the competitive, "singles-bar" atmosphere Michael Collins warned about. If one male and the female begin an affair, jealous rivalries which would amount to little or nothing on Earth may be magnified into violence on a space station.
Once again, no suggestion is made that sex should be regulated by NASA except to the extent noted earlier. Helmreich, Wilhelm, and Runge (1980) suggest more harm than good would come out of a policy prohibiting sexual behavior. A policy prohibiting sex will not make desire go away, but may serve to frustrate that desire into a more dangerous form.
Gender stereotyping is another potentially destabilizing factor. There is some evidence (Oberg, 1981) that astronauts and cosmonauts still hold outmoded views of the roles of women. The multicultural nature of the crews of future long-duration missions brings an additional potentiality of gender stereotyping. To avoid such possibilities, it will be necessary to train crew members together and have them work on various tasks to demonstrate competence. The prevalence of cultural and societal stereotypes towards women in both the U.S. and its international partner states makes this necessary.
In general, the information we have on sexual behavior in small, confined groups is not adequate to fully answering the issues set forth here. Dr. Peter Dews, a psychobiologist at Harvard Medical School, says NASA needs to focus on the issue of sexuality in space and should do so by studying ground-based, confined groups. "Before you try to go to very expensive places, you ought to do preliminary experiments. Our current state of knowledge on these issues is abysmal" (as quoted in Broad, 1992, p. C9).
NASA has traditionally eschewed life sciences research into human behavior in favor of hardware. Sexual behavior has previously not been an issue due to the brevity of the missions. In the future, this will change as we move out into the solar system. Without the initial, basic research being conducted to support this effort, it could ultimately take much longer and cost more and may ultimately fail. NASA needs to redirect its efforts and expand its research in support of human settlement of space if such settlement is to ever occur.
Sex is a natural, human activity which can be expected to be carried along wherever human beings go. Many concerns arise when humanity begins to be able to carry sexual activity to outer space. Though there are no biological reasons that the physical act can't be performed, the consequences of the act, i.e. children, may be adversely affected by being born and raised in a microgravity environment. Until such time as biological concerns can be alleviated, effective contraception methods should be mandated.
The biological and psychological problems associated with sexual activity in space demand, at least in the near-term, a code of ethics be adopted by NASA. Though morality should not be imposed, some effort should be made to guide astronaut's behavior towards not having children.
Ultimately, NASA will need to give up its puritanical views and begin studying sexual behavior, reproduction and other life sciences' issues if humanity's move into space is to be achieved successfully.