A Dutch startup, SpaceLife Origin, proposed a series of missions leading up to a baby being born in orbit, before backing off last year. (credit: SpaceLife Origin)
From his home in Cape Canaveral, Air Force pilot Alex Layendecker explained how he had been drawn to the study of sex and reproduction in space. “I had been immersed in the space environment in the Air Force, assigned to launch duty, and was simultaneously pursuing an M.A. in public health, and then at the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, and I was looking for a dissertation topic,” he recalled. “I decided that sex and reproduction in space had not received the attention they deserved—if we’re serious about discussions of colonization, having babies in microgravity—on Mars or other outposts of the Earth, then more needs to be learned.” His general recommendation was that because of the squeamishness of NASA to study sex in space, a private nonprofit organization, or Astrosexological Research Institute, should be founded for this research critical to human settlement of outer space.
What were the prospects for space-based sex lives? Layendecker’s study of the literature yielded both good and bad news. Sex should be possible, even lively, but reproduction, critical for space colonization, could entail severe health consequences. His assessment included glum early accounts, like that in Wired magazine of male impotence: “Reports on the incidence of this in microgravity conditions by male astronauts are mixed—the astronauts of the Mercury and Gemini programs reportedly confided to flight surgeons that they noticed a ‘definite lack of activity in that region.’” This was also backed by evidence of lowered testosterone levels in astronauts “exposed to microgravity conditions.”
Layendecker then brightened the picture, noting, “Astronaut Mike Mullane reported awaking to erections so intense that they were painful during his first mission in space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-41-D.” Mullane, in his memoir, observed, “Flight surgeons have attributed this phenomenon to the fluid shift that occurs during weightlessness. On the Earth, gravity holds more blood in our lower legs. In orbit that blood is equally distributed throughout our bodies. For men the result is a Viagra effect.” Dennis Tito, a former JPL scientist and investment tycoon, corroborated this narrative. After spending eight days on the ISS as the first space tourist, Tito announced, “In space, there is no need for Viagra.”
In another publication, Layendecker, along with physician and Canadian “citizen-scientist astronaut candidate” Shawna Pandya, noted that there was no available data from women about their levels of sexual arousal while in space. NASA, apparently, does not ask and female astronauts, so far, have chosen not to tell. Layendecker suspected that because of the engrained misogyny and sexism prevalent among Air Force pilots and at NASA, female astronauts have not been willing to risk their careers discussing with Jimmy Kimmel or CNN reporters whether they feel sexy in space. To bring home this point, Layendecker described how the career of NASA psychiatrist Dr. Yvonne Clearwater was buffeted in the 1980s, when she led NASA Ames’s Habitability Research Group, tasked with designing space habitats.
For a 1985 Psychology Today article, Clearwater authored a sidebar titled “Intimacy in Space” explaining why, as a habitat designer, she favored creating privacy, including soundproofing, around space station sleeping quarters: “The prospect of having women and men working together in close quarters always seems to lead to questions about sexual activity… It seems obvious, however, that a group of normal healthy professionals will probably possess normal healthy sexual appetites… If we lock people up for 90-day periods, we must prepare for the possibility of intimate behavior.” She added that the job of her team was “not to serve as judges of morality, but to support people in living as comfortably and as normally as possible.”
Her calm assessment created a media nightmare for NASA. Newspapers ran articles with titles such as, “NASA Told to Make Room for Sex in Space,” and “Sex in Space: Do You Want Your Tax Dollars to Support this?” According to Layendecker, NASA had to hire a full-time liaison to assure Congress that they were not budgeting tax money to run Kinsey-like sex experiments. Journalist Laura Woodmansee wrote, “From the reaction… you would have thought she was advocating genocide.” At a space conference seven years later, Clearwater, when questioned about the sex lives of astronauts, responded, “We are not doing any research and it’s a non-issue.”
While current television series such as The Expanse promise vigorous sexual activity in space, and male astronauts, in memoirs, have confirmed the priapic possibilities in microgravity, healthy reproduction and child-rearing are quite different issues. Layendecker was floored when he was asked to consult with the Dutch startup “SpaceLife Origin,” which, in the fall of 2018, proposed to provide wealthy mothers the facilities to give birth in space, with the motto, “If humanity wants to become a multi-planetary species, we also need to learn how to reproduce in space.”
SpaceLife Origin had a multi-step plan. First, by 2020, they would implement the SpaceLife Origin Ark, which would be a bank of male and female sex cells, “protecting the cells for any catastrophic event on Earth for decades.” (This was Plan B in the movie Interstellar.) Next, by 2021, SpaceLife planned to launch “Mission Lotus” in which human ovum would be fertilized in orbit and then returned to Earth and if deemed viable, implanted in a mother. Finally, by 2024, the company would operate a birthing service in orbit, or “Mission Cradle,” in which pregnant women, near term, would give birth in a one- to two-day mission in low Earth orbit, “accompanied by a trained, world-class medical team.” As in other forms of luxury space tourism, parents of such space babies would be wealthy paying customers, presumably motivated to be part of history, and to have children who truly earned exotic names like “Moon Unit,” Or “XÆ A-Xii.”
Layendecker was not the only one flabbergasted by SpaceLife Origin’s proposal. Microgravity and exposure to increased radiation in space were not trivial. He said, “There are real dangers, hazards to successfully produce healthy babies in that environment. And all sorts of liability issues.” Layendecker added, “I advocate starting with mice, rats, but companies like SpaceLife Origin were jumping straight to humans.”
In general, sexual reproduction in space will be medically fraught. In a worst-case scenario, the high levels of radiation in space could render males temporarily and females permanently sterile. Russian experiments with rats in satellites revealed that although coupling and fertilization took place, no offspring were born. Once back on Earth, male space rats tended to induce “significant abnormalities” in offspring when mated with partners that had not flown. Layendecker pointed out that there also were concerns about “significant alterations” to sperm and ovum development in space, “raising serious questions about humanity’s ability to successfully reproduce off-world.”
NASA’s cautious planners took note, he said. “A number of NASA researchers have suggested offering cryostorage of gametes for astronauts of both genders, in order to safeguard their ability to reproduce if desired.” Layendecker also suggested further study was needed of the likelihood, in microgravity, of ectopic pregnancy, in which a fertilized zygote implants in the fallopian tubes rather than the uterus, as well as endometriosis, which involves abnormal growth of the uterine lining. Both conditions can be life threatening. SpaceLife Origin, it would seem, despite its utopian and profit-seeking goal, was boldly wandering into a minefield for litigation.
In regard to SpaceLife Origin and others’ ambitions to open the path to off-planet colonization, Layendecker commented, “Frankly there are a lot of people in the space community that we refer to as ‘space cadets.’ They are incredible and enthusiastic about space. This is fantastic. And commercial ventures are enabling us to get into space. A lot of us care very much about humanity expanding into the cosmos but we also are realists.” Layendecker asserted that until researchers acquire more knowledge about reproduction and other areas of space medicine, the vision of off-Earth settlements needed to be tempered. “There are so many issues of spaceflight science and medicine that we have to solve… It’s so much easier to do a math problem than to work out all the issues of biology and physiology responding to space.”
SpaceLife Origin, to its credit, took the concerns of Layendecker and others to heart. As of the summer of 2019, Kees Mulder, its CEO, announced he was suspending its programs: “Serious ethical, safety and medical concerns related to Missions Lotus & Cradle are preventing me personally any longer from accepting any associations with and responsibilities for those two specific missions involving ‘embryos, pregnant women and baby’s (sic.) in space.’” He added, “In short: “Better safe than sorry.”
If Layendecker’s assessment is accurate, it may be time for NASA to lose its squeamishness—or for some of the current crop of space billionaires to help fund Layendecker’s proposed Astrosexological Research Institute.