Sperm in space: The sexual politics of space travel

Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

A recent discovery about the survivability of sperm cells in space has strong implications about the future of space travel. It may be women, not men, who colonise other planets. This presents a tremendous opportunity for female astronauts, but it may also represent an ideological step back in our goal for equality among the sexes.

In the biological world, males and females of a given species perform unique functions related to their role in reproduction. The queen of a bee colony – the only fertile female – is protected by tens of thousands of infertile female workers, while the male drones die upon mating. Female lions care for the young and hunt, while males act as ‘security guards’ for their pride’s territory.

Whether we like to admit it or not, human observation of these sexual dynamics in the animal kingdom – of which we are a part – has had a massive effect on  cultures worldwide. Across the globe, the roles of men and women have been defined by their role in reproduction. Women were confined to the home raising children, while the men went out and earned a living.

While many societies have made great strides towards equality of the sexes, there is still a great deal of weight ascribed to people’s reproductive value. Some women feel shame if they cannot naturally have children, and one egregious justification for homophobia is that same-sex partnerships cannot be ‘natural’ without the possibility of reproduction.

In the biological world, males and females of a given species perform unique functions related to their role in reproduction.

So, as much as humans would like to imagine that we somehow transcend our biology as animals, we are not there yet. An interesting case has emerged in the context of space travel and future colonisation of other planets.

A Spanish study, presented recently at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Vienna, found that frozen samples of sperm exposed to microgravity retained similar characteristics to sperm samples kept on the ground. In other words, sperm cells may be able to survive in outer space.

Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut, claimed at a 2017 conference that an unreleased NASA report recommends space crews of one gender to promote better cohesion among the team. The implication of this information in the context of the sperm study is clear: Women – and only women – may be the first people to colonise another planet.

While in the earliest days of space travel, women were rejected for fear that radiation would affect their future fertility or that their menstrual cycles would influence their ability to work, the ratio of male to female astronauts chosen by NASA is rising in favour of women.

Sperm cells may be able to survive in outer space.

 In 2013, one third of astronaut candidates selected by NASA were women. In 2016, this amount rose to one half, where it still remains with the current selected class in 2017. This rising potential for an all-female mission will only provide more opportunities for women to excel in this groundbreaking and highly respected field – far from the type of ‘pink collar’ jobs women have been forced to take over the years.

As tremendous as this is, it presents an ideological conundrum when one asks: Why do women have this potential to be the first to colonise other planets?

In short, because sperm cells can survive in space and eggs cells can’t. In other words, women are needed in colonisation missions for their role in reproduction.

It would be foolish to presume this is the only reason women are valued in space. The ratios in astronauts mentioned above were shifting long before this preliminary sperm study. The report cited by Helen Sharman also claims that female crews cooperate better and are less likely to argue over leadership – essential for success on a mission to space, in which egotistical squabbling may mean the difference between life and death.

Ultimately, this excitement in the potential for space exploration is, however thrilling, a small reversion to a type of pre-feminist thinking. Though working on a colonisation mission may appear to be a radically different job from staying on Earth and keeping house or raising a family, women on a mission to Mars are also bound to motherhood.

Try as we might, we cannot transcend biology.

If both sperm and eggs could survive in space, I suspect men would find a way to dominate there as well. Of course, if sperm cells couldn’t survive in space and eggs could, men would be sent into space primarily to father children, so the issue may not be one of gender after all. But it presents the interesting philosophical question of what and whom we value, and why.

The ratio of male to female astronauts chosen by NASA is rising in favour of women.

However, were I an aspiring woman astronaut, I would take these philosophical concerns, consider them for a moment, then put them away entirely and don my spacesuit regardless of the details.

Because it doesn’t always matter why something is the way it is. When a tremendous opportunity presents itself, as it has for women astronauts around the globe, one should take it and fly away with it.

In this case, right to Mars. 

This post was written by Miles Martin and edited by Tara Wagner-Gamble.

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