Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Sex in Space – A Taboo?

By David Reneke

Dave Reneke brings news from the space and astronomy communities around the world.

According to three prominent scientists, having sex and getting pregnant in space is not a good idea. The radiation hazards of space are just too dangerous, they say.

Female astronauts sent to colonise Mars would be well advised to avoid getting pregnant en route because high energy particles bombarding the ship would almost certainly sterilise any female foetus conceived in deep space, making it that much more difficult to establish a successful Mars colony once the crew lands.

“The present shielding capabilities would probably preclude having a pregnancy transited to Mars,” said radiation biophysicist Tore Straume of NASA. The DNA that guides the development of a fertilised embryo and the functioning of all body cells is easily damaged by the kind of radiation that would bombard astronauts on a Mars voyage – and ultimately on the surface of the planet itself.

Although difficult to predict, solar flares are another hazard spewing high-energy protons across the solar system. Studies in non-human primates have found that even relatively low doses of ionising radiation in space are sufficient to kill most of the immature egg cells in a female foetus during the second half of pregnancy.

If those results translate equally to people, then a female conceived in interplanetary space might well be born sterile because of damage to her eggs. “One would have to be very protective of those cells during gestation to make sure that the female didn’t become sterile so they could continue the colony,” Straume said.

Other undesirable considerations of foetal radiation exposure could include severe mental retardation, body deformations and, of course, various forms of cancer. Not a good outcome.

The logical outgrowth of human space exploration is colonisation. “These are issues that really needs to be resolved if we ever plan to have a colony on Mars,” Straume added.

Space Food to Go
The first astronauts sucked semi-liquid pastes out of aluminium food tubes. All their meals came this way: no roast dinners, no desserts, and no tasty leftovers to munch on. This was Spartan space travel and they just accepted it.

Now, with our goal of establishing research outposts on other planets and eventually sending humans to Mars, we’re going to need tasty, nutritional meals in space. Food designed to be flown into space and eaten at zero gravity can’t be bought in your local supermarket. It’s made before you go and it has to do two things.

First, it must meet the nutritional needs of the astronauts so that they stay healthy and strong enough to complete their mission. Second, the food must survive temperature changes during launch and acceleration into space and stay fresh during long duration spaceflights. In the case of the first Mars colony, their food will need a 5-year shelf life.

We’ve learned a good deal about nutrition in outer space. We know that most astronauts, even after short duration spaceflights, suffer weight loss and start to lose muscle strength. On longer missions astronauts lose calcium from their bones and suffer vitamin D loss due to the lack of sunlight. Exercise helps, but more is needed.

The food that is sent into space needs to be able to counter these problems. Early astronauts weren’t thrilled with their food choices but now food systems professionals at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, are working with NASA astronauts on menu choices 7 months before a launch. Astronauts have a choice of more than 200 beverages, snacks and entrees. Shrimp cocktail and barbecued beef are among the favourites. Variety is very important so astronauts eat enough to stay healthy.

Maintaining the astronauts’ desire to eat is a challenge in space. Without gravity, food smells float away before they reach the nose, so food tastes are less pronounced.

Each food in a meal must be packaged separately. Salt and pepper have to be suspended in a liquid so they don’t float away.

Being well-fed helps to guarantee a successful mission. When we challenge our ability to step off our own planet, we force the innovation needed to support life in space. Innovation is only limited by imagination. Imagination drives exploration. And all explorers need full stomachs to successfully complete their journey.