Do Astronauts Have Sex?
In space, no one can hear you moan.
Astronaut Lisa Nowak is facing attempted murder charges after she drove nearly 1,000 miles to confront a rival for the affections of another astronaut, Bill Oefelein. Nowak said that she and Oefelein had "more than a working relationship, but less than a romantic relationship." Wait, did they ever get it on in space?
No. Nowak and Oefelein were never on the same mission, so they couldn't possibly have joined the 62-mile-high club. But some of their colleagues may well have engaged in some extraterrestrial hanky-panky. Former and current astronauts don't like to talk about space-shuttle sex, and NASA says that if it's ever happened, the agency doesn't know anything about it. (NASA has never conducted official experiments on animal reproduction in space, says a spokesman.)
If astronauts have had space sex, it would have been very difficult. First off, there isn't much privacy up there. A regular shuttle is about as big as a 737, and the two main areas—the crew cabin and middeck—are each the size of a small office. The bathroom is little more than a seat with a curtain, and there aren't any closed rooms where two people could retreat. The space station, on the other hand, has a little more room to operate. The three-person crew generally splits up for sleeping time: Two of them bed down in a pair of tiny crew cabins at one end of the station, and the third might jump in a sleeping bag at the other end, almost 200 feet away. (The panel-and-strap design of a space bed might not be that conducive to lovemaking.) Astronauts also have a demanding work schedule, leaving them with little time or energy for messing around. Space-station crews do get time off on weekends, though, when they can watch movies, read books, play games, "and generally have a good time."
Of course, speculation has been rampant. The first mission that included both men and women launched in 1982. But on that flight, cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya's reputation for toughness, not to mention her married status, stamped out rumors. The first married couple went to space in 1991, when training-camp sweethearts Jan Davis and Mark Lee served together on a mission. NASA normally has a policy against letting married couples fly together, not because they're afraid they'll have sex, but because it might hurt the team dynamic. However, they made an exception for Davis and Lee since the couple got married so close to launch time. (In this photo, taken during the mission, Lee has his arm around Davis.) Both have refused to answer questions about the nature of their relationship during the mission. In the 1990s, rumors circulated about unorthodox coziness between Elena Kondakova and Valery Polyakov on a mission to the space station Mir, especially after a video got out showing Valery playfully splashing water on Elena during the flight.
The question of space sex has prompted at least one hoax. In his book The Last Mission, French author Pierre Kohler claimed that NASA had commissioned a study on sexual positions in outer space. He cited a fictional document, widely available online, that describes subjects experimenting with 10 different positions, six of which required an elastic band or sleeping-baglike tube to keep the couple together in zero gravity.
Which raises the question: Would space sex be any good? Recent research suggests it would not. For one thing, zero gravity can induce nausea—a less-than-promising sign for would-be lovers. Astronauts also perspire a lot in flight, meaning sex without gravity would likely be hot, wet, and surrounded by small droplets of sweat. In addition, people normally experience lower blood pressure in space, which means reduced blood flow, which means … well, you know what that means.
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The Explainer thanks Bob Jacobs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Laura Woodmansee, author of Sex in Space.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photographs of astronaut above and on the Slate home page by NASA via Getty Images.