It may sound silly or prurient, but it really is a serious concern.
“Sex and romantic entanglements among astronauts could derail missions to Mars and should therefore be studied by NASA, warns a top-level panel of US researchers.
NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon by 2018 and later on to Mars. But a round-trip mission to the Red Planet would probably last at least 30 months and carry six to eight people. That would be a hotbed for intense crew relationships, says a report by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
“With the prospect of a very long-term mission, it’s hard to ignore the question of sexuality,” says Lawrence Palinkas, a medical anthropologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, an author of the report. It reviewed NASA’s plans for research to keep astronauts safe and healthy in space â€“ but the plans make no mention of sexual issues in spaceflight.
Palinkas says long-term space missions may be similar to extended periods in the isolated and confined environments of Antarctic research stations. He says crews in those stations often pair up in “bachelor marriages” that last the length of their stay â€“ or less. “If there are instances of sexual conflict or infidelity, that may lead to a breakdown in crew functioning,” he told New Scientist.
“Breakups can lead to violence and all kinds of things,” agrees Carol Rinkleib Ellison, a psychologist specialising in sexuality and intimacy based in Oakland, California, US, who was not part of the NAS panel. “People are very primitive in their emotions around partnering and sex.”
Sexual harassment may also endanger a mission. In an 8-month space station simulation on Earth in 2000, a Russian man twice tried to kiss a Canadian woman researcher just after two other Russians had gotten into a bloody brawl. As a result, locks were installed between the Russian and international crews’ compartments.”