Lust in space: Study tells all

of the Sentinel Staff

One researcher has dubbed it the 200-Mile-High Club.

But no matter what the name, the subject of sex in space still prompts nervous laughs or terse denials from officials on both sides of the Atlantic nearly 40 years after humankind's first trip to orbit. For space historian Peter Pesavento and others skeptical of the party line, the question of whether men and women have docked in weightlessness remains unanswered.

Pesavento admits he can't say with certainty either way. However, his recent study on the psychological and social effects of isolation in orbit has assembled some of the Space Age's more X-rated moments: rumored trysts on the Russian space station Mir. U.S. and Russian crew members screening porno movies there. Efforts to film a zero-gravity sex scene. Cosmonauts discussing the pros and cons of an inflatable girlfriend. A Canadian scientist being groped by a research cosmonaut during a long-term space-station simulation in Moscow.

Pesavento's findings were unveiled not on The Jerry Springer Show but in a recent issue of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly, a scholarly journal published by the University of North Dakota. Beyond its ability to titillate voyeurs, the study raises important questions about satisfying one of humankind's most basic needs during long periods in space.

It's a key issue for men and women living aboard the international space station. Weightlessness appears to have no effect on the relevant male and female equipment. And barring any miraculous developments in rocket propulsion, people will have to do the deed in space one day if we are ever to travel the vast distances required to explore beyond our solar system.

"One day, it will happen," says Arnauld Nicogossian, NASA's chief medical officer for spaceflight.

But so far, NASA insists, it hasn't.

NASA: No sex so far

Rumors of cosmic copulation have been around for years.

The flight of the first married couple aboard shuttle Endeavour -- astronauts Mark Lee and Jan Davis -- raised eyebrows in 1992, but the newlyweds worked separate 12-hour shifts. In 1997, former NASA consultant G. Harry Stine wrote in his book Living in Space that the pool where astronauts practice spacewalks had been used to train for high-flying hanky panky as well. And a French author published a book last year claiming astronaut couples aboard shuttle Columbia in 1996 tested 10 sexual positions in weightlessness using a variety of aids, including elastic belts and an inflatable tunnel.

Several news services picked up the story. However, NASA quickly exposed the sex-test tale as a fraud by pointing out the shuttle crew in question consisted of seven men. The story's source turned out to be a bogus Internet document.

In fact, the only in-orbit liaison NASA managers officially acknowledge occurred aboard shuttle Columbia in 1994. The lovers: four small Japanese Medaka fish.

Pesavento, however, has unearthed evidence that sexual issues have long been a huge concern in the U.S. and Russian space programs. Many of the revelations are new, some based on confidential interviews with cosmonauts and astronauts. Others have been culled from past media reports around the world.

"It's an important topic, but it also has a lot of baggage that comes along with it," Pesavento said. "With NASA, which is very PR [public relations] sensitive, these are things they don't want to talk about at all."

Thoughts about 'those things'

In some respects, the issue was less complicated when space travelers were almost exclusively men. The big concern then was keeping the male libido satisfied.

Before the 1973 launch of the U.S. Skylab space station's first three-man crew, some researchers worried astronauts could get infected prostate glands if they remained celibate for long periods of time. One doctor encouraged the crew to regularly take care of business solo to avoid urinary-tract problems and relieve sexual frustration. The astronauts reportedly ignored the advice.

Valery Polyakov, a Russian doctor who holds the world record of 438 consecutive days in space, learned about sexual frustration during a pair of long-term stays aboard Mir.

"No need to say what we're longing for," Polyakov recorded in his diary. "Everyone knows. Men think about 'those things.' "

In an effort to relieve that longing, the Russians considered a number of options, including inflatable sex dolls for the crew. Polyakov argued against the idea.

"Some people asked me about different ways of compensating for a sexual abstention in space, particularly about using a doll which you can buy in a sex shop," Polyakov told the Internet site space.com. "I strongly opposed such a solution. A man who is using such things may develop a so-called doll syndrome, or in other words, to start preferring the doll to his own wife or a girlfriend."

Russian doctors ultimately came up with another solution. When NASA astronaut Norm Thagard became the first American to live aboard Mir in 1995, he was surprised to find the outpost's video library stocked with a large selection of French and Italian erotic movies. Psychologists had instructed the Russian crew to view the films confidentially during the latter stages of their mission.

"They were films with some nudity in them, kind of hard R or soft X, but nothing with any overt intercourse," Thagard told the Sentinel. "I just thought it was amusing those things were even on board."

Dangerous liaisons

The emergence of women in space in the 1980s raised a whole new set of concerns. And nowhere were those concerns greater than on Russian space stations.

Rumors were rampant after the first woman to live aboard a station, Svetlana Savitskaya, spent eight days aboard the Salyut 7 outpost with four men in 1982. And there were more whispers after Helen Sharman, a researcher at an English candy company, won a contest for an eight-day stay aboard Mir in 1991. One of her male Russian crewmates reportedly filmed her floating through the station in a pink nightgown. Savitskaya and Sharman insist they were all business.

Pesavento debunks a bit of Mir's juiciest gossip, an alleged affair between cosmonauts Polyakov and Elena Kondakova. If true, it likely would have been space's first extramarital affair.

Kondakova, now a legislator in the Russian Duma, was married to another cosmonaut, Valery Ryumin. Quotes attributed to Kondakova by a Greek newspaper included the suggestion that "something happened." But the cosmonauts emphatically deny any monkey business. Both still were crewmates on Mir when Thagard arrived.

"If that was going on, it wasn't apparent to me," said Thagard, now an electrical-engineering professor at Florida State University. "It makes a nice story, but I didn't see any evidence."

Mir's potential as an orbital Peyton Place almost made it the backdrop for the silver screen's first skin scene in space. The cash-starved Russian space program signed off last year on a plan to film a risque science-fiction feature aboard the outpost. The script included a steamy, explicit male-female rendezvous in weightlessness. However, Russian film director Yuri Kara was unable to line up the financing before the decision was made to scuttle Mir in the Pacific Ocean near the end of this month.

Russian actors Vladimir Steklov and Natalia Gromushkina already had been picked as the on-screen lovers. According to Pesavento, both actors had passed preliminary medical tests, and Steklov had completed basic cosmonaut training.

The toughest thing besides raising the money, director Kara was quoted as saying, was figuring out how to get the actors "to strip out of their spacesuits for a weightless sex scene." Mir's cosmonauts were to have served as the camera crew. Polyakov was listed as the film's official consultant.

"This is, of course, an exotic project," Russian Space Agency (RSA) director Yuri Koptev told the Tass news agency, "but the RSA considers it possible in order to get additional money."

An incident at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems shows Russian concerns about sexual frustration are well-founded. And, as on Earth, alcohol apparently adds fuel to the fire.

Canadian researcher Judith Lapierre was living inside a closed space-station mockup last year designed to simulate long-duration stays in orbit. After a vodka-filled New Year's Eve celebration, two research cosmonauts got into a fistfight so violent it left blood splattered on the module's walls.

While the brawl was going on, mock station commander Vasily Lukyanyuk allegedly grabbed Lapierre, dragged her to another part of the module and attempted to French-kiss her. Lapierre fought him off and managed to escape. She was unhurt but quit the project in disgust.

To avoid similar problems in orbit, some researchers advocate allowing couples on long-duration crews to have sex just as they would on the ground. Ray Noonan, a human-sexuality instructor at the State University of New York, is one such proponent. Noonan's doctoral dissertation was on the role of sex in space life-sciences research and long-duration spaceflight.

"Besides the stress-reduction and exercise aspects, it could have morale-building features," Noonan says. "For most people, sexual relationships tend to enhance their happiness and performance."

Jealousy in the biosphere

Thagard vehemently disagrees. He cites the experience of a group closed off from the rest of the world in a biosphere experiment for an extended time.

"That group split apart into two warring factions, and the reason was the pairing up of men and women and the jealousies that created," Thagard said. "You also have legal and moral issues."

As for the big question -- Have men and women had sex in space? -- Thagard doesn't think so. Noonan says it has probably happened.

Pesavento acknowledges there is no definite evidence either way. But he personally takes the view that astronauts don't check their libidos at the spaceship's door.

"If you put anybody in space in close confinement for six months, a year, three years, and you put them in a mixed-gender crew, there's a good chance there's going to be sexual activity going on between the genders by the time that mission is over."

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