If the landing module’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin’...
Officially, nobody has ever had sex in space. What about solo sex, though?
It’s not something NASA has ever been particularly keen to talk about, but certain things can be figured out based on how the rest of the body is treated by weightlessness. Gravity is key to a lot of the body’s processes—the parts below the waist generally benefit from being there, thanks to a gravity assist. Spending extended periods floating around means less fluid can travel to the genitals, fairly key to the physical side of arousal, and the body generates less testosterone, crucial to arousal in men and women.
Life finds a way, though. With the sheer amount of time people spend up there, it’s inevitable. Russian cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov spent 437 days spanning 1994 and 1995 onboard the Mir space station. A 2019 survey by a condom company found the average man to masturbate three times a week—at that rate, Polyakov would have had 180 or so periods of him-time even without the stress, loneliness, and everything else. It would have been something of a miracle if he didn’t take himself in hand a few times up there.
And that miracle didn’t take place—Polyakov once noted in his diary, “Psychological Support Service sent us some nice, ‘colorful’ movies which help to recover our will, to act like a normal adult male. There is nothing to be ashamed of.” When Polyakov’s trip was in the planning stages, the idea was floated of sending a sex doll up there with him. Polyakov declined, concerned that he would end up preferring the company of the doll even after returning to Earth.
Other veterans of space travel have been fairly frank about getting it done up there. Speaking to the author Mary Roach for her book Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Laveykin described how things went on his 174-day trip to space: “Everybody is doing it, everybody understands. It’s nothing. My friends ask me, ‘How are you making sex in space?’ I say, ‘By hand!’”
In his memoir Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, astronaut Mike Mullane writes that at one point he had “an erection so intense it was painful”, adding that he “could have drilled through kryptonite.” Astronaut Scott Kelly was asked about it in an interview and opted to “take the fifth”.
On long missions, male astronauts are at least informally encouraged to ejaculate regularly to avoid prostatitis, with a 2014 paper by NASA advisor Marjorie Jenkins concluding that prolonged exploratory travel would benefit from the people involved doing a bit of prolonged exploring of their own, due to infrequent ejaculation resulting in accumulation of prostate secretions and bacterial growth.
No such advice, formal or informal, is in place for female astronauts, however. While around 90% of astronauts thus far have been men, only 69 women have ever been to space, 100% of the astronauts that have come back to Earth and talked about touching themselves while up there have been men.
(Despite the future of space travel relying on men and women being able to spend enormous lengths of time in space, it hasn’t historically been the most progressive of areas. The all-male crew of Apollo 12 found a surprise waiting for them in their logbooks in the form of Playboy centerfolds hidden within the pages, while the second woman ever in space, Russian Svetlana Savitskaya was presented with an apron by her crewmates.)
Privacy is also an issue. While Mir or the ISS might afford a bit of alone time, on a shuttle you’re pretty much all in there together, all the time. Other than heading to the toilet for a bit of alone time – and the communal poop-pipe isn’t the sexiest of environments—you would generally be reliant on others’ willingness to act busy somewhere on the other side of the room and pretend they didn’t know what was going on. This is how it works in submarines, where everyone simply learns to ignore movements coming from behind the flimsy curtain surrounding a “sleeping” crewmate.
Efficiency would seem to be key, then—getting straight to the point rather than taking one's time. Sweat gathering on the surface of the body tends zero-gravity to pool together and float off in large clumps – again, not something likely to enhance anyone’s experience. All in all, until space travel gets a bit more luxurious and people can enjoy themselves, solo space sex missions are probably best done on the DL. Unlike space travel itself, it’s all about the destination rather than the journey.