Monday, June 28, 2010

Newtonian Sex

There were plenty of starry nights, but a NASA commander says there was absolutely no sex in space during a mission that brought three female astronauts to the International Space Station.

Space Shuttle Discovery commander Alan Poindexter spoke definitively today on the outer space romance ban during a trip to Tokyo, where he and his team discussed their two-week resupply mission in April.

"We are a group of professionals," Poindexter told a reporter when asked about consequences for space sex. "We treat each other with respect and we have a great working relationship. Personal relationships are not ... an issue. We don't have them and we won't."

Michelle Ruiz, AOL News, June 28, 2010

At one point in my life, I played Professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University here in Daytona Beach. I taught a couple of courses, most notably a three-hour extravaganza called “Human Factors in Space.” The course was designed to explore the physiologic and behavioral aspects of space flight for budding engineers and, like most university courses, I was able to take twenty minutes of material and turn it into twenty weeks of work, plus papers and a two-hour final exam.

(As you can guess, the ERAU curriculum is aviation-focused, with most students getting degrees in aeronautical science…pilots…aerospace engineering, aviation management, meteorology, that sort of thing. It’s a very good school, and if The Child chooses any of those career fields I’d be happy to have him go there, despite the added burden of doing his laundry for yet another four years. But knowing the students well does create some problems when they graduate. About eight years ago I was on a commuter flight from Daytona to Atlanta when I heard a voice in the cockpit say, “Hey, doc!” It turned out that the First Officer was one of my students, one who had gotten a C minus only out of my good graces because I figured he was such as slouch that he’d never wind up in a position of responsibility and he was so good spirited about the whole thing that I felt bad giving him a D. To his credit, the flight was about as tranquil as it could have been. It was also the most unnerving fifty-two minutes I’ve ever had in an aircraft.)

Being that the class is full of hormone-addled collegians, it was obvious that they were going to ask about sex in space. That’s why I made sure the lecture was noted on the syllabus, so I could avoid having to keep answering the question until the appointed time. But Isaac Newton could have predicted all you have to know about having sex in space.

Think about sex. Now wipe the smile off your face (assuming you are smiling…I do extend my best hopes for you) and think about the mechanics of sex. Not only do two people have to come together in an intimate way, but they have to be able to stay together and they have to be able to move against one another. On earth, that’s not a problem. If one partner is on top of the other, in whatever configuration might be, gravity keeps them in place; and even if the partners are on the same level, if you will, gravity keep them pinned to whatever surface they happen to be on, whether it’s a bed, a floor, or the backseat of a 2003 Saab 9-3.

In space, gravity is not a factor. (Technically, it actually is a factor, but not to the extent where it’s noticeable on most routine activities. If gravity weren’t in play at all, spacecraft wouldn’t orbit a planet, but would just shoot straight out into space. The more appropriate term is microgravity, not “zero-G.”) So if two people come together, they will not do so on a surface because there is no gravity to keep them there. Instead, they will tend to “float” within whatever enclosed space they inhabit at the time. Floating sex sounds like a lot of fun, and I suspect that it would be. However, if you’re floating abut, and one partner thrusts forward, Newton’s Third Law (the “equal and opposite reaction” one) suggests that there will be a corresponding movement in which the other partner will be pushed backwards, not only seperating themselves from their desired but also slamming against whatever wall, container, or overhang happens to be nearest in the direction of flight. They way to avoid this, and biomechanically the only way to have efficient sex in space (this was a human factors engineering course, after all) is to indulge in a bit of goal-oriented bondage play, restraining one partner to a solid surface with straps or tapes while the other secures his or her position through the use of brackets, handholds, or some other way to hold the body in place.

So what’s the real answer to the question, “Has anyone ever had sex in space?” We know the official answer, as well noted by Commander Poindexter. The real answer, of course, is “Not that we know of.” Let’s be frank…there have to have been times when there was some definite attraction between members of mixed-gender flight crews. (I’m excluding pathological attraction involving cross-country drives and the use of astronaut diapers to stalk your beloved.) So if I’m really attracted to the girl working the robot arm (and you can take that any way you wish), do I want to give it a shot, especially with the radio to Houston off and the good graces of my crew members? You bet I do. And if I was not one of the involved parties, would I be willing to go down to the middeck, close the hatch, and put on some earplugs so my colleagues could have a half hour to themselves? Absolutely. (Although the ear plugs might prevent me from hearing some really good lines, like “I felt the earth move,” because it is, and “I feel like I’m floating on air,” which you are. Which are better lines than “I hope this duct tape peels off,” and, “Gee, when we’re locked up here together for two weeks without a shower, you do pretty much smell like a gym locker.”

I think we should explore these issues with the same intensity we devote to learning the hidden story of Jake and Vienna (whom I do not know personally, but have seen on three magazine covers this morning at the local bookstore and found myself intrigued that a girl should be named after a sausage). Personally, I want to know these things not because I am a voyeur, but a scientist. When our sun goes supernova in a few billion years, the continued existence of the human race may depend on our interstellar procreative prowess. And how else to you learn stuff besides experiment and observation? I hereby volunteer to go up and try it. I’ll take notes. You can even make a video. But that astronautess had better be smiling.

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