The Future of Love

The Final Frontier of Human Sexuality May Be in Space

Can love survive in the cosmic void? And if so, should it?

Written by Tatyana Woodall
Originally Published: 
Lais Borges & Dewey Saunders/Inverse; Getty Images
The Future of Love

Above fair Earth is where we lay our scene, where meetings between star-crossed lovers could transcend mere metaphor to become reality. While it’s true that at least one secret couple, Mark Lee and Jan Davis, took to the skies in 1992 aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, the official word from NASA is that none of its astronauts have ever joined the hundreds-of-miles-high club. At least, not yet.

Left to peer down at their home planet (or passing stars) in relatively cramped quarters with a handful of crew for months on end, astronauts undergo a form of isolation so profound few ever experience it. Much like Adm. Richard E. Byrd, the 20th century explorer who once spent five months alone in a one-room shack in Antarctica, astronauts who undertake a slow, lonely sojourn to the unknown with no guarantee of return are just as inherently isolated. But such extraordinary isolation doesn’t serve humanity’s seeming goal of being a space-faring civilization.

In other words, we need to not only do our best to survive but thrive there. We will need to have sex in space.

Mission to Mars

NASA hopes to send crewed missions to Mars in the near future. Currently, the agency is studying astronauts’ health and well-being as they live in a simulated Mars habitat.


From our vantage point on Earth, life in space seems pretty lonely. On the International Space Station, it isn’t uncommon for one astronaut not to see anyone else aboard for an entire day while going about their various chores. The spacecraft was only built for seven people to be there at any time, and that’s at maximum capacity. Not to mention the separation astronauts must feel when they depart for their missions, spirited away from their loved ones on Earth for weeks and months at a time.

But as space agencies begin to plan longer and more robust missions to further otherworldly locations, astronauts will have to prepare themselves for a kind of isolation that may not have a specific end-date.

“We’re going to start having more concerns about isolation and confinement, when missions are longer, specifically missions to Mars,” Emmanuel Urquieta tells Inverse. Urquieta is an assistant professor at the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and also the chief medical officer at NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health. He makes a fair point. NASA once estimated that a human-led round-trip to the Red Planet could take about 900 days, or 2.5 years — a long time to be so removed from society and all the social interactions humans tend to crave — including romance. “[Astronauts to Mars are] going to be mostly disconnected from everything that they know on Earth and their family and friends,” Urquieta says.

But what do space exploration and knocking (space) boots have to do with each other? Considering that isolation and confinement in extreme environments have been shown to cause anxiety and depression, the opportunity for love and intimacy on long space journeys may improve spacefarer’s lives exponentially, explains Simon Dubé, a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University who studies space sexology, or extraterrestrial intimacy.

“Space travel and life will challenge people to find new ways to express their intimacy and sexuality, safely and ethically, within the limited, isolated, and confined conditions of space habitats,” Dubé tells Inverse.

The subject of several uber-glamorous films and TV shows, like Passengers or The Expanse, space sex is undoubtedly one of the oldest (and funniest) sci-fi tropes in the book. But for all intents and purposes, it could get interesting. Living in space for long periods could transform our expectations around love, sex, and reproduction as humanity ventures farther into the cosmic abyss.

As private space companies like Blue Origin and Axiom Space race to make the final frontier more accessible to the public with cheaper space flights and luxury space hotels, having sex in space could easily become a draw for a different demographic from astronauts entirely.

Yet before future astronauts and other potential space travelers can be confident in their ability to do the horizontal tango, experts say there are a slew of health, ethical, and logistical concerns to account for before love and desire can safely roam the ready room.

Life in Space

Astronauts Jan Davis and Mark Lee secretly married before they embarked on a mission aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Corbis/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

As complex a puzzle as the human body is on the ground, they’re even more perplexing in space, says Shawna Pandya, the director of the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences’ Space Medicine Group.

“When we talk about sex and space, it’s pulling at a very, very load-bearing thread,” explains Pandya to Inverse. “It’s actually a very complex problem because how does arousal work in space?”

Pandya is part of a cadre of scientists who believe that the commercial space industry will open up opportunities to study human reproduction in space. She says there’s a “survival aspect” to figuring out if humans can thrive just as well off-world as we do on it.

In trying to imagine reaching a point where self-sustaining human settlements on other planets are a possibility, we need to understand the smaller, gushier details of what sexual health in space looks like, starting with how astronauts deal with their own reproductive health. As expected when leaving the Earth’s comforting embrace, a menstrual cycle is made infinitely more complicated in a free-floating, radiation-filled environment, whether on a crewed ship or another planet.

It is also fraught with gender politics. In 1983, NASA believed Sally Ride, the agency’s first female astronaut, would need 100 tampons for a weeklong mission, just to be safe. We’ve come a long way since then, but today, most female astronauts choose to forgo menstruation in space, opting to take oral contraceptives that indefinitely delay their period during their time away from terra firma. Although there may be a risk of developing a blood clot in female astronauts who take certain medications to delay their period, Pandya points out that menstrual bleeding has been known to clog the ISS’ waste system. During a longer mission, such a technical mishap could jeopardize the crew’s safety.

Let’s presume that someone not only ovulates but gets pregnant. At that point, Pandya says, it’s a toss-up as to whether or not it’d even be possible to sustain a pregnancy to term. Pregnancy in space carries all the same potential health complications people experience on Earth, a hundred times over. In such an unpredictable and harsh habitat, everything that could go wrong probably would.

“Even at the level of the International Space Station, we’re exposed to approximately 250 times the radiation we would be exposed to at sea level on Earth,” says Pandya. Scientists know that radiation on the ISS causes tissue damage in the eyes, the reproductive organs, and bone marrow in full-grown adults, so its effects on a developing organism could be even more dramatic.

“We need so much more research to be able to delineate how safe reproduction and development happens in deep space as well as in space in general.”

The ability to spawn life in space would also open up a well of logistical issues we currently don’t have the infrastructure for: What if an astronaut chose not to go through with the pregnancy? Would a spacecraft be stocked with enough food and supplies to support an unexpected, extra-needy crew member? How would an addition hinder the crew’s duties or affect their delicate interpersonal dynamics?

Same-sex couples may be free from many of these worries, but researchers can only speculate how expressions of sex and sexuality could change the mood of the shared space environment.

Collecting data about human sexual habits and health in space is a difficult task, but there are data gathered on other animal stages of pregnancy, birth, and growth in space. To date, jellyfish, wasps, and even quail eggs have all been studied to gauge the likelihood and well-being of subsequent offspring. In 1979, the Soviets were first to study mammalian sexual reproduction in space with a rat-breeding experiment, to no avail. Decades later, a Chinese mission sent up early-stage mouse embryos to determine if they could develop in space. No dice. And while sex was allegedly not occurring at the same time, male astronauts did once have to use condoms as part of an early urination filtration system.

Let Love In

In this NASA illustration, a future space colony is imagined as a place not unlike Earth, including social spaces for people to meet — and perhaps fall in love.

NASA Ames Research Center

As our species keeps pushing the boundaries of humanity spaceward, sex off-Earth can no longer be relegated to romance sci-fi novels and hilarious microgravity highjinks onscreen. But what we true romantics want to know is: Could love survive in the cosmic void? And if it can, should it?

Konrad Szocik, a visiting scholar and bioethicist at Yale University who studies human enhancement and the philosophy of space exploration, believes that as long as people are able to thrive on Earth, choosing to have a child in space doesn’t make sense. But humans do need to be ready to adapt if future intimate space relationships stand a chance. “One can surmise that intimate relationships will have to develop in a very adverse environment in terms of privacy,” he notes to Inverse. “I think this lack of freedom and autonomy is what will challenge human life in space in general.”

Plainly speaking, the happiest of encounters could have as much of an adverse effect on a mission’s main objective as the ugliest of break-ups.

If there’s no fighting it, how are space agencies preparing for the inevitable?

NASA hasn’t publicly released any formal guidelines on space sex since it apparently banned it more than a decade ago, but Dubé recommends that if agencies want to get the jump on space sex research, they should invest in resources to train their employees on the potential risks of sex and intimacy in space — including consent, protection, and safety.

But space agencies and companies will also have to teach their travelers how to communicate with “a great amount of courage and honesty.” You can’t ghost someone when you’re stuck for months inside a pod the size of a small apartment together in the midst of a dark vacuum.

Ultimately, even if some lucky astronauts have done the deed up there — why should we know about it? Baring yourself to a partner takes mettle, but baring yourself to the universe is another matter entirely.

In The Future of Love, Inverse dives deep into the cutting edge science of pleasure, sex, and human connection — whether in virtual reality, the real world, or even space. Read the entire collection here.

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