Is Space Sex Lethal? - Here Are the Answers

If you followed the yellow press (of course, you don't) or the bloggosphere, you might have gotten the impression that your dream of one day joining the 220 Mile High Club might have to be scratched from your bucket list. Calm down. Having sex in space might be dangerous for reasons associated with travelling in a space craft, but a specific risk associated with (human) sex in space is not a conclusion that can be drawn from our research. So here are the answers to your burning questions:

Is sex in space truly lethal?

Hold on to your tickets with Virgin Galactic for the moment! The dangers associated with (human) sex in space are not higher than those associated with any other space-travel related activity. As long as you bring condoms and straps.

I need to bring straps??

From a mechanical point of view, (human) sex at zero gravity might not be trivial. The highest risk is probably that associated with banging your head during the romp. Unlike when squeezing into the restroom of a 747 to join the conventional Mile High Club, you might want to actually "fasten your seatbelts" to avoid floating all over the space craft.

How was that rumor of space sex being dangerous generated then?

By an eye-catching, but logically erroneous, combination of buzz words. Here we debunk the most flagrant misconceptions:

YES, we investigated the effect of zero gravity (or rather: simulated micro-gravity) on a process involved in sexual reproduction - in PLANT sexual reproduction. (More about plants "doing it" here)

YES, sex is actually always lethal, whether in space or not - but only if you are a pollen tube. The pollen tube (the sperm delivery organ of the male gametophyte in plants), dies after delivering the sperm cells.

YES, the cellular process we observed (intracellular trafficking) occurs also in human cells, and might be affected similarly by zero gravity (but we don't know).

NO, the particular human cells that we suspect to possibly be affected by zero gravity are neither the sperm or egg, but rather nerve cells, since in these cell types a lot of intracellular trafficking is happening.

YES, intracellular trafficking is known to be affected in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

NO, that does not mean that putative, zero gravity induced effects on trafficking in human cells would lead to Alzheimer's or Parkinson's! These diseases were only mentioned to illustrate how important the regulation of intracellular trafficking is for the functioning of human cells. Need more substantiation of the importance of vesicle trafficking? Check what the recent winners of the Nobel-Prize in Medicine did to merit this award!

So can we not learn anything at all about human sex in space from this research?

Yes and no. The main conclusion for human health that we can draw from this project, is that it would certainly be worth looking at the effect of zero gravity on cellular growth and development in the human body, as well as functioning of the nervous system. For example, it would be interesting to investigate whether any of the effects on cognitive functioning experienced by space travellers can be linked to an effect of zero gravity on intracellular trafficking in neurons.

If we continue sending people into space, and on much longer missions, it would also be interesting to study whether the development of a fetus would be affected by zero gravity. For a fetus to grow, cells need to divide, grow and differentiate. Intracellular trafficking is important for all of these processes. Hence, before we start making babies in space (not that this is planned for anytime soon), we might want to look at how these developmental processes are affected by zero gravity. Just to re-emphasize, it is not the act of having sex but the possibly resulting formation and growth of a fetus that could (COULD!) potentially be affected by zero gravity. [A much higher danger for pregnancy in a space craft is likely to result from the exposure to radiation ..... but that's a different story].

Why did you use plant cells for this research in the first place?

There are many reasons for studying plants in the context of space research. Firstly, despite the quip in the Huffington Post ("Who needs a garden in space anyway?"), plants will play an important role in future space travel. They are used to recycle water and waste, to generate fresh air, and grow fresh food. Imagine how much you would crave a fresh tomato during a one year trip to Mars......

Secondly, although there are clearly lots of differences between humans and plants, all living organisms are composed of cells, and many cellular processes are regulated in similar manner - whether in a plant or in a human. Studying plant cells is often technically simpler and involves fewer ethical concerns. Hence, research on plant cells has a lot of advantages - and is a lot of fun. For more fun with plants, check the specials.