Houston, We May Have Some Problems: Colonizing Mars and Sex in Space

By Patrick Morgan | January 13, 2011 5:37 pm

Strap on your astronaut suit and hold on to your space shoes, because in 20 years, you could just be aboard Earth’s first mission to Mars. At least, that’s the hope of over 400 people who read the Journal of Cosmology’s special edition issue, The Human Mission to Mars: Colonizing the Red Planet, and volunteered to take part in a not-yet-scheduled trip to Mars.

The journal spills the details about the logistics involved in a privately-funded journey to the Red Planet–a book-length brainstorm by leading scientists. What, for example, happens if you get an infection on Mars? How do you have sex in space? And, most importantly, how long do you have to live on Mars before you get to call yourself a Martian? (Ok, I made that last question  up, but aren’t you curious?)

Any journey to Mars–especially one with no scheduled return to Earth–is fraught with challenges. As Fox News reports:

“It’s going to be a very long period of isolation and confinement,” said Albert Harrison, who has studied astronaut psychology since the 1970s as a professor of psychology at UC Davis…. “After the excitement of blast-off, and after the initial landing on Mars, it will be very difficult to avoid depression…. Each day will be pretty much like the rest. The environment, once the novelty wears off, is likely to be deadly boring. Despite being well prepared and fully equipped there are certain to be unanticipated problems that cannot be remedied. One by one the crew will get old, sick, and die-off.”

Sounds like an awesome time, doesn’t it? That’s what more than 400 people thought as they enthusiastically volunteered for the first mission. Would-be space cadets flooded the journal’s editors with requests: the ranks include a 69-year-old computer programer, 45-year-old nurse, and a Methodist pastor. “I do VERY well with solitude,” wrote one starry-eyed solicitor. And since the mission would be privately funded–and not a NASA mission–the potential explorers wouldn’t have to meet NASA’s strict guidelines for becoming an astronaut–no need for those vexing little things like science degrees and professional experience.

For cost reasons, the scientists focused on a one-way trip to Mars, which means that any Martian colony of Earthlings would have to be self-sustainable. That would entail having sex in space so that the colony’s population wouldn’t dwindle. In a chapter on space age procreation, Rhawn Joseph (who says he’s affiliated with something called the Brain Research Laboratory in California) outlines the challenges the astronauts would have with pregnancy, fetal development, and even the “complex sexual gymnastics” inherent in doing it in space. Quoting Joseph, Fox News reports:

“On Mars, the light’s going to be different, the gravity will be different, it’s a completely different atmosphere…. So if you put an infant on Mars, they would adapt to varying degrees of the new environment. And after several generations, you’d have a new species,” [Joseph] said.

We’re not sure where Joseph got his training in evolution–a new species within several generations seems mighty unlikely to us. But since we’re discussing a hypothetical space colony, we’ll let this hypothetical evolution go for now.

Though we may still be a couple decades from a manned mission to Mars–a mission riddled with challenges, yet brimming with eager faces–one thing remains clear: Whether we’re talking about Martian geology, the affects on human psychology, diseases, or sex, it’s bound to be out of this world.

Related Content:
Science Not Fiction: Right Now Might Be Our Last Chance to Go to Mars in Our Lifetimes
80beats: The Real Problem With a Human Trip to Mars: Radiation
80beats: Six “Astronauts” Prepare for 17 Months in Isolation to Simulate Mars Mission
Bad Astronomy: Mars exploration in trouble?

Image: NASA, Hubble Space Telescope

  • Matt B.

    I’m pretty sure people will find a way to have sex in space; they’ll probably consider it a personal goal. But they won’t actually need to. The trip to Mars is only about 6 months. There’s plenty of time after that.

    It’s also possible to build a spinning habitat on Mars to provide the extra gravitational effect needed for normal physiology. This probably wouldn’t be done immediately, though.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/smwilson31 Sam

    I love writeups like this. humans have evolved to live in relatively small groups, of which only a few people would be sexually potential mates.

    As soon as small groups begin settling, innate behaviours could become dominance. I think looking back 10,000 years and human behaviour is important. Sex in space is possible, but what about what drives us? can science and logic become obsolute when innate behaviours fuel our desires, especially over generations.


  • Eric

    “And after several generations, you’d have a new species,” [Joseph] said.”

    I am not sure that this guy knows how evolution works. Why would Discover even help propagate this misconception by repeating the quote? It would take many, many generations and variable reproduction or natural selection for a new species to develop.

  • Kevin Bridges

    “‘And after several generations, you’d have a new species,’ [Joseph] said.”

    Wow. Evolution has its complications, but it’s not so far out of reach that this sensationalist statement should ever have been made.

    The public view of evolution, that it’s a force that automatically makes offspring better than their parents, is ridiculous, and apparently something that Rhawn Joseph believes in.

    Maybe I should listen to him. After all, he “says he’s affiliated with the Brain Research Laboratory in California” Well, I’m also affiliated with that laboratory*, so now that I said that, I can speak with as much authority as Rhawn Joseph.


  • Aaron

    @3. Eric & 4. Kevin Bridges:
    Agreed. The less intense light and weaker gravity would likely result in nothing more than paler skin and smaller muscles. Also, I am pretty sure that no realistically probable amount of genetic mutation will ever occur that will allow a human being to survive in the Martian atmosphere. That would require a dramatic alteration of the basic physiology that is common to every land animal on Earth, and so even our “fittest” would die upon exposure and thus never reproduce! Instead, we would have to “evolve” our technology in order to facilitate our survival.

  • http://drvolts.com Jake R

    I would go on that trip in an instant if it came up, and I am only 22! It sounds like a great time, though that new species thing is kinda dumb to say.

  • Jennie Kermode

    There is a phrase, ‘Antarctic pretty’, which neatly sums up the way human sexual behaviours tend to change in small, isolated colonies. Mate selection is unlikely to be an issue.

    I would be exceedingly surprised if ways to have sex in space have not been found already, whether or not they have been reported to NASA.

  • Brian

    Probably not the wisest decision to start a sex-related story with the words “strap on.” I has certain connotations, you know.

  • Chris

    Of course a new species would arise. Remember the three breasted woman from Total Recall?

  • Thomas

    To get a new species in a reasonable number of generations you’d a very high fatality rate and correspondingly high fertility. The fatality part may not be too far fetched, I can think of all kind of medical problems for a child growing up in a much lower gravity, probably higher radiation etc.

    Of course, in reality they would all die in ten years when people on Earth grew bored of the whole thing and stopped sending supplies. It’s not as if such a small colony can be self sufficient.

  • ThatGuy

    I’ll get the powder, sir. /Kif

  • Steve

    How do I volunteer!?!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Eric & Kevin Bridges: yeah, we should have made it more obvious that we’re skeptical of Rhawn Joseph’s credentials and his quote. His over-the-top website doesn’t provide a link to the Brain Research Laboratory he says he’s affiliated with, and we couldn’t find it ourselves.

    I’ve added a little extra skepticism to the text above.

    — Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • http://ira.abramov.org/blog Ira

    Regarding Space Sex, It HAS happened, but NASA wouldn’t release an official word about it. I happen to know only this tiny bit of information because a friend of mine spent two months at “Singularity University” and one of the astronauts they were talking with has divulged that tiny datum, but could not comment further :-)

    regarding “it will be a new species”, well, it certainly will not be a big genetic diversion, but the next generations will look different: they will get less sun light, their bones will be less dense since infancy and throughout their growth process, so we don’t know how that will work out, and finally there’s the issue of nutrition – if it’s substantially different from earth plants and meat, then it won’t only change the children’s hormonal balance but may also start effecting their development in the womb in yet unforeseen ways, as the mother’s body chemistry is also a major factor in the development. let’s hope they just look weird (pale, odd-shaped, brittle bone structure maybe), and not really badly deformed and in horrible agony from abnormal skeleton development and FSM-knows-what. they will certainly have to document at least 10 new medical conditions not in the medical books on their first year on mars alone, before you get to pregnancies and the other issues.


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