Mark Lee and Jan Davis met during training for a space shuttle mission and kept their relationship quiet long enough to ensure that it would be difficult to replace them on the mission, as NASA normally would have done under its then-unwritten rule that banned married astronauts from flying together.
And so, in September , Lee and Davis became the first and, after the unwritten rule became a written one, possibly last married couple in space. America had just one question for them.
NASA says no humans have had sex in space. Well, speculation and a vague sense that we would want to try it, given half a chance. Sex — or, rather, reproduction — has piqued the curiosity of scientists , too. When they went to space together, Lee and Davis even spent some time artificially inseminating frog eggs for the greater good.
So, somebody got lucky on that trip. And this is about more than just sex. Experts say that whether and how reproduction works is just one of a number of medical and biological questions related to long-duration space travel to which we need better answers and more, more-diverse data. Right now, anybody who wants to take a human to Mars for a trip that would last a minimum of nearly two years is, in many ways, flying blind. The research on reproduction in space has been slow and underfunded.
All told, at least five species — from amoebas to rats — have gone through the, er, act of reproduction while in orbit. The data that has come out of this research is not altogether reassuring. Space travel can affect reproduction in a couple of ways. First, most obviously, is the radiation. Space is full of subatomic particles moving very quickly. Those particles can slam into DNA like a bowling ball laying down a sweet split.
The damage they leave behind can alter genetic instructions, setting up a path that leads to cancer, genetic mutations that can be passed down to children, and other problems. The magnetic field provides some protection in orbit as well.
Any trip to Mars would result in radiation exposures exceeding the current allowed limits for astronauts. Jan Davis and Mark Lee, the first married couple in space, aboard the shuttle Endeavour.
The Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off. Microgravity — you know, the whole thing where astronauts float around the International Space Station like a Cirque du Soleil troupe with a penchant for polo shirts — seems to alter biology too. But the effects of microgravity are weirder and more complex than what can be addressed by a modified treadmill. Some of the female mice that traveled to the space station in and stopped ovulating, and others lost their corpus luteum, an important structure that forms in the ovary after the release of an egg.
The corpus luteum is responsible for producing hormones that maintain a pregnancy until the placenta can grow enough to do that job itself. Without it, you might get pregnant, but the pregnancy would be unlikely to stick. This connects to data from older experiments. Back in , Russian scientists launched a satellite carrying male and female rats and gave them the opportunity to mingle beginning a couple of days into their day trip.
Two rats had apparently gotten pregnant, but both miscarried. These effects persist after the animals return to Earth, but things eventually reset after they spend enough time in normal gravity.
We only have a very small sample of female astronauts to begin with — as of , only 11 percent of people who have gone to space have been female. It would be very difficult to statistically separate the impact of microgravity on their hormones and fertility from the impacts of their age and medications.
But again, these trends give rise to more questions than answers. This photomicrograph shows normal skeletal muscle fibers top and atrophied skeletal muscle fibers bottom. Astronauts train in microgravity. It could alter fetal development , particularly the vestibular system, which helps you maintain your balance when you walk.
Rats who go into labor shortly after returning from space have almost twice as many contractions as rats who never left Earth. Tash told me that researchers are only on the cusp of beginning to understand why microgravity can alter the body in the ways it apparently does. But what we do know should give us pause. In , for instance, somebody from NASA told Slate that the agency had never conducted official experiments on animal reproduction in space, a claim that appears to be in direct opposition to the published scientific record.
NASA is not focused on sex in space at this time, Humphries told me. And that is where your prurient giggling connects to a much larger issue. Turns out, we know very little about the impacts of long-duration spaceflight in general. The open questions include whether some medications would lose efficacy in less time than it would take to get to Mars and back, and whether spaceflight-weakened astronauts would be able to regain their muscle mass in Martian gravity they way they do on Earth.
So what happens then? Part of the problem is that almost all the available data on astronaut health and recovery comes from astronauts who have experienced only very short stays in space.
During the space shuttle era, most people were only ever off the planet for about two weeks at a time. Since then, missions have lengthened significantly. What we think we know, based on mostly short-trip data, might or might not turn out to be accurate when applied to longer journeys.
In testimony to Congress in June, Kelly said that the physical impacts of his day trip were surprisingly different from those he experienced after a day mission. His muscles stiffened more quickly. He developed a rash all over his body from touching everyday objects.
He even had flu-like symptoms. In , for instance, it commissioned a team studded with health experts and retired astronauts to write a National Academies report advising the agency on how best to ethically approach long-duration spaceflight situations where the very nature of the mission would mean that astronauts must violate current NASA workplace safety standards.
But other groups interested in traveling to Mars have displayed less concern about these challenges. At right is the nucleus of one of the daughter cells created when a cell undergoes mitosis and splits in two. He has since left the company. The cheaper and more realistic the transportation becomes, the more incentive other people will have to answer questions about things like making babies. Finding those answers will take cash, starting with increased investment in astronaut health.
The National Academies report advised NASA to put more resources into caring for, and monitoring, the health of retired astronauts. He was a spokesperson at SpaceX when he was interviewed, but he left the company before the article was published. For instance, Russian state media has reported on experiments involving geckos and cockroaches. But I was unable to find peer-reviewed documentation of these studies, and the cockroach reports made incorrect statements about that animal being the first to conceive and give birth in space.
That honor appears to belong to a group of Japanese freshwater fish.