Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Scientists, Smart But Oh So Dumb

For the last two weeks the history channel has been advertising an upcoming episode of their show Universe.

Specifically, the ads are for this evening's episode - entitled Sex in Space.

The brilliant physicist and Universe regular, Michio Kaku, is quoted in the short version of the ads saying, "The future of the human race may come down to one question: Can we have sex in outer space."

The implication being, of course, that sex simply may not be possible in zero-gee. And if we can't do it, well, we can't colonize space and sooner or later we'll use up the Earth and that, as the scientists say, will be that.

The long version of the ad shows people attempting to mimic the physical motions necessary for sex in the zero-gee environment of G-Force One, the civilian version of NASA's Vomit Comet. The narrator's voiceover talks about how difficult it is to just maintain position and a grip on your partner.

NASA denies that it has actually studied space sex in detail, and the Russians are even more tight lipped. The ESA, like Europeans themselves, has a more casual attitude towards micro-gravity sex studies - at least admitting that they're interested in such things. Despite this, the ESA studies haven't done much more than show a drop in male astronaut testosterone levels during space flight. However, a number of male shuttle astronauts report what they call the Viagra effect of weightlessness resulting from the redistribution of fluids within the human body due to zero-gee. Apparently, a number of male astronauts experience a certain form of persistent embarrassment that is usually reserved for 14 year-old boys called to the front of the classroom.

Human bodies are designed for gravity, a constant 9.81 meters per second squared, and those big muscles are a danger in space. Start losing control, or get just a little too enthusiastic, in zero-gee and not only are you likely to bounce away from your partner at the most inopportune time, you're very likely to bash your brains out on the equipment racks. Those having sex in space might be well advised to wear helmets and knee pads. Supposedly, there have been studies showing that sex in zero-gee will require the use of Velcro and elastic belts or bungee cords. During this episode of Universe, scientists speculate about foot holds like the kind on water skis, hand holds like the kind used to help handicapped folks into and out of bath tubs, padded tunnels, special suits, and duct tape (it's like the Force: it has a light side, a dark side, and it binds the universe together, and it could very well be the key to sex in space helping the Jedi steady their light-sabers so to speak).

Even if sex is possible in space, nobody may want to have any according to those who've been up there. There's no privacy in space habitats for one thing. Not only are you in close proximity to your shipmates, but you're also being monitored by about 9000 NASA engineers, scientists, doctors, administrators, and very likely the accounting department. So unless you've got the inhibitions of a zoo monkey, be prepared to have the whole world evaluate your technique. In zero Gee, fluids make your face swell up, often giving you a perpetually stuffed up nose. Sniffing and mouth breathing are generally not considered particularly sexy. So far, there isn't a hell of a lot of hygiene in space either, no showers, just the occasional wet nap bath - after a while you're going to smell like combat boots on patrol in Mosel. A significant fraction of spacefarers experience zero-gee motion sickness - difficult to get aroused when you're suffering projectile vomiting, nausea, fever, and shrieking diarrhea. And even if you do mange to keep your lunch down, well, there are other hazards involving the human intestinal track. Air bubbles, for example, tend to remain in solution without gravity. Which means that every swallow of water contains lots of air - which in turn results in, uh, well, gas. Lots of gas. Skylab astronauts reported farting 500 to 600 times a day. Mix that that with some of those Russian freeze-dried borscht and pickled cabbage meals on the ISS and you have a pretty damned effective birth control shield.

Basically what is comes down to here is that sex in space would be a lot like doing it with a Botulism victim in a ripe port-O-potty on a hot summer day with the entire crowd from Woodstock waiting in line outside the door and cheering you on. Toss in a trampoline, a streaming webcam, and the chance of being permanently maimed and you're pretty much right up there on the shuttle.

So, this then is the concern. Scientists just aren't sure the human race will ever have sex off-planet.



Smart guys, no doubt. But have you ever seen one get laid? Yeah, not so much.

Trust me here - people will find a way. They will. People have had sex in refrigerators, bathtubs, trains, drains, and covered in calf's brains. They've had sex with a nun, on a bun, and by the ton. They've had sex dangling from parachutes, in speedboats, upside down in closets, in a crate, on the deck of a rowboat covered in bait, and the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle on a double date. And I have it on good authority that more than one person had sex with a botulism victim in a ripe port-O-potty at Woodstock while the crowd cheered them on.

Trust me here, NASA Scientists, people will find a way to have sex in outer space.

Send up a couple of seventeen year-olds and order them to stay away from each other.

I give it one day before you find them sharing a spacesuit doing the Bristol Palin.

Really, guys, don't worry about it.


  1. I've always loved that line from a later Heinlein novel...

    "The pleasures and pitfalls of zero-gee sex are greatly exaggerated."


  2. I once ran across a website where some guy documented his circumcision with detailed photos of his dick - before and after, all stages of down and up, closeups and full-body shots. There was also, apparently, a penis-themed party at some point during the 'before' where his friends got together to support his decision, and at least one friend had his real penis hanging outside of his pants for the occasion. Then the website followed up the 'after' with step-by-step photographs of himself masturbating (to show that it still worked).

    I don't think the space scientists will have too much trouble finding people willing to be space sex guinea pigs. ;) They just have to know where to look. (Though training them to be astronauts, that part might be challenging.)

  3. Well, while the mechanics can be worked out (I'm in favor of the bungee cord adaption, might be a zero-g version of a full motion waterbed), I think most "scientists" are wondering if sex (ie. reproduction) can happen in space. See that fluids comment. While we don't think about it, animals on the planet have evolved to count on gravity. In the presence of zero-g, the question isn't "will the gross (or large form) mechanics work, but will sperm, egg, and internal engineering work properly to allow pregnancy?" I'm sure the teasers for the show discuss what most people think of as sex, my guess is the show will focus on the fertility experiments we've conducted.

    But yeah, geek sex in space. There's so much humor potential there.

  4. "NASA denies that it has actually studied space sex in detail, and the Russians are even more tight lipped."

    Uh, I heard...stories...when I was in the USSR. Apparently the first Russian female astronaut was dubbed "The Flying Fuck"...

    "Scientists. Smart guys, no doubt. But have you ever seen one get laid? Yeah, not so much."

    Dude, you have been talking to the wrong scientists. :D You can't extrapolate from the characters wearing BC glasses whom you used to work with at NRL. The rest of us self-select out of that environment for a reason. :p

    But don't get me started on Kaku. That guy does not live in the real world. I have worked on, well, lets just call it super camouflage and let it go at that.

    Kaku was New York Public Radio a while back talking about Star Trek-like military technology, and started in on invisibility and military applications. He went on the standard pacifist line about cheap solutions foiling complex technology, and said that spraying sand or water would reveal even camouflaged troops. Yeah, and where is that equipment going to come from, and it's going to operate 24/7? Sure, stuff can be defeated, the question is with how much effort, and how often?

    Kaku is the living embodiment of the physicist in the Spherical Cow joke.

  5. From one of my current class lecture notes online:

    "If we ignore air resistance, all objects near the surface of the Earth fall towards the Earth at the same rate. a-sub-y = -g ; g = 9.81 m/s²."

    You're welcome.

    Dr. Phil

  6. Wright baits the scientists, as in "consider a spherical scientist..."

    And yes, professor, you are of course correct and I will go fix it. It was late, I was tired, and typing fast - and somehow confused gravitational constant with an acceleration of 9.98m/s^2 from my gunnery class (the classic a bullet fired from shoulder height...). Apologies. It won't happen again

    Sure, it won't :)

  7. "Wright baits the scientists, as in "consider a spherical scientist...""

    Oh, there's plenty of those. :p

    Here's something that will make your head explode. :D

  8. OK, for the mechanics of sex--please. Of course people are going to boink. Let's not be foolish.

    But more interestingly, the point is briefly brought up of the biology of conception. I don't see much of an issue there, as jumping up and down after sex doesn't reduce pregnancy risk.

    What I think would be more interesting would be the affects of zero gravity on *pregnancy*--I mean, I'd think low or zero gravity would take a lot of strain of pregnant women as far as backs and hips. Would it be a pain free pregnancy?

    But even more interesting is to consider the mechanics of childbirth. Without, would the baby be able to move into position? How does bed rest affect the baby "dropping" (see, even the terms of pregnancy relate to gravity)? Wouldn't zero gravity be worse?

    And what about birth? What affect would zero gravity have on birth? Would the woman have to be strapped down to the bed? Ugh. Would a woman's water "break" under zero gravity? How does gravity affect the mechanics of childbirth?

    So sex? Whatever. People will manage.

    I'm more fascinated by what zero gravity will do the pregnancy and childbirth.

  9. The show actually touched (heh) on that subject, Michelle.

    Fetal development in zero-Gee being a major issue. Based on rat studies, it would appear that after a certain point, gravity is required for proper fetal development.

    Nobody mentioned the effects of zero-gee on pain, can't imagine morning sickness would be any fun though.

    And they showed sketches for a proposed "birthing compartment" that takes into account flying fluids and such.

    Until, and unless, things change in the space program, this is probably a moot point anyway. I just found the ominous seriousness of Dr. Kaku's ads and the rest of it amusing.

  10. Well, it wasn't pain per se, as much as the discomfort that comes from trying to walk/sit/sleep when your hips and innards have been displaced. I was thinking that zero g would take the strain off of backs and hips.

    But lack of proper fetal development would be a bad thing. I wonder what precisely was affected. Interesting.

  11. Michelle,

    Muscular/skeletal development, according to the show - which I won't argue with, but wouldn't place a great deal of stock in either. It was dumbed down quite a bit, as you might imagine. I suspect "SEX IN SPAAAAAACE" was done to attract an audience. And Universe isn't about serious science, it's more like Popular Mechanics.

    Don't get me wrong here though, if shows like this, and guys like Kaku can get the public and kids interested in science I'm all for it. In fact, we need more of it. A lot more. And a whole lot less crap on the level of Sponge Bob and the WWF.

  12. "Human bodies are designed for gravity"

    Adapted for gravity. (Yes, sorry, but this is terminological ass-chap of mine.)

  13. Well, see, Scott, I thought about that.

    Me? I'm not much on the whole "designer" concept. I'm a big fan of evolutionary theory. However, when I write things like this I try to be mindful of the many different people who may read it.

    If I say "designed" I'm in trouble, if I say "adapted" I'm in trouble, if I say "designed or adapted according to your belief system" I'm in trouble.

    I used "designed" in this post because, well, I was tired and didn't feel like fooling around, and because I figured you could interpret it as designed by the deity of your choice or designed by evolution or designed by Gucci :)

    But I understand your point.

  14. Michelle - the internal organs get squished anyway, just from the fact that two pieces of matter can't occupy the same position at the same time. Zero G will help back pain a little, but remember, a good bit of the pain is from the cartilage in the hips loosening so that the bones can open up and puuush that bowling ball out.

    I'd bet that pain would be reduced maybe 30, 40%, but remember that swimming around in Zero G probably pulls on the abdominal muscles, so you may be trading one set of pain for another. And a kick to the kidneys is a kick to the kidneys, no matter what the gravity. :p

  15. Okay, the skeletal problems make sense for a developing baby. Muscular though? Weird.

    And John, obviously the internal organs are still going to be misplaced, but you won't have the back and hip strain from walking/standing/sitting is what I was thinking. Which (aside from being kicked in the bladder) is one of the biggest complaints many of my pregnant friends have made.

  16. They should send up a pair of bunnies. If anything can figure out how to have sex in space, I bet bunnies could. ;)

  17. Swimming around the cabin will still require back and hip muscles, and at that they will be used in ways not normally used in walking.

    My bet is you'll be trading in one set of pain for another. And there is some pain associated with the hormones that loosen up the joints.

    Some reduction in that lower pelvic region pain will be expected, but I'll still lay my money on no more than a 1/3 reduction in pain.

  18. Sex in space? Meh.

    I want to see WWF in Space.


  19. You people who are arguing over whether people were designed for gravity or adapted to it are completely missing the point. As the self-proclaimed Center of the Universe, I happen to know that gravity was created for my personal convenience. I'm just letting all of you guys use it.

    You're welcome.

  20. It seems to me that the big assumption here is that living in space (as opposed to on another planet) will ipso facto involve zero or close to zero g. Nonsense, say I.

    Long trips in space can and will be done with atifical gravity, which can be done through centrifugal force. Yeah, there will be engineering problems to be solved, but this is nothing new.

    More serious is insuring sufficient shielding to protect astronauts from the various typesof raditionour atmosphere and the Van Allen Belt provides us on Earth if actual procreation is going to occur on such flights.

  21. Actually Vince, when I was discussing this with my friend Kim at lunch, the centrifugal pregnancy assisting machine came up. We decided that it might actually be necessary in space.


    You're welcome.

  22. So, to summarize.

    Take closed, micro-gravity environment, on extended voyage.
    - ensure there is no way to leave the environment and live.
    - add several male military type astronauts and assorted other mission specialists.
    - add one pregnant female astronaut (preferably hugely pregnant, complete with severe hormonal imbalanced mood swings, odd cravings, gas, and extended morning sickness).

    Shake, stir, and feed NASA version of MREs.

    Option 1:
    - spin pregnant astronaut around rapidly. See what happens.

    Option 2:
    - Just open the airlock, jump the fuck out, and get it over with.

    Yeah. Centrifuging the pregnant astronaut, sign me up for that mission. Almost as much fun as giving a cat a bath.

  23. Thanks for that link, Michelle, I particularly like the little net.

  24. Any time Jim.

    I live for bringing up really weird crap that is at best tangentially related to the subject at hand.

    And the net really is the coup de grace on the machine. A machine almost certainly invented by a single man.

  25. Not only a single man, but a single man who has never, ever, ever been in a delivery room.

    Little catcher net. Yeah.

  26. Dude, that thing was invented in the 60s. They didn't allow men, other than the doctor, into delivery rooms back then.

  27. I was just meaning a single man who'd never been married or had a real conversation with a woman about his "invention" which also would have guaranteed he didn't pass on his defective genetic material.

  28. They didn't allow men, other than the doctor, into delivery rooms back then

    Well, of course not, not with a some big whirly table thingy spinning a screaming woman around with fluids flying everywhere, a guy might not be able to hear the game over such a ruckus...

  29. Michelle:
    Actually Vince, when I was discussing this with my friend Kim at lunch, the centrifugal pregnancy assisting machine came up. We decided that it might actually be necessary in space...

    You're welcome.


    Thank you for sharing that with me. Sort of. I kinda like the little catcher net -- I almost dropped the first baby that I got to "catch" when I was a med student doing my obligatory OB-Gyn rotation during 3rd year of med school. They are slippery little buggers. I caught him by one leg as he was headed right for the floor. He was completely fine, the mom never knew, and I was traumatized thereafter...

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