The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Projects like the HOTOL spaceplane have been rare exceptions to British disinterest in human spaceflight. (credit: British Aerospace)

No sex (or any other human activities) in space, please: we’re British!

On Wednesday, April 28th, the Drudge Report connected to a story in the left-wing British paper, The Independent, titled “Sex, the final frontier: NASA acts to ensure that astronauts don’t follow their urges,” written by their technology editor, Charles Arthur. As usual, when this subject comes up, one does not know whether to laugh, or to laugh hysterically.

Let’s start by admitting that our Western civilization is the most sex obsessed cultural complex in human history. In our media, the sexual aspects of any human activity, from writing software to building cars or fighting wars, will overshadow most everything else about them. No one should expect human spaceflight to be treated any differently.

According to Arthur, the subject was raised by a Dr. Rachel Johnson at a British Interplanetary Society (BIS) meeting. The BIS is one of the oldest and most respected space advocacy groups on this planet. She is quoted as saying “NASA is talking about the chemical sterilization of astronauts on longer journeys.” No source was given in the article, just “NASA.” So we do not know if this refers to some formal agenda item brought up during a meeting between Sean O’Keefe and Craig Steidle, or just a couple of alligator control technicians at the Stennis Space Center gossiping with each other.

The whole sex in space issue is sadly not going to go away. Do we have an option of giving any degree of privacy to this planet’s astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts?

According to the author, the NASA spokesman at JSC was nonplussed. This is the sort of inquiry they get from giggly teenagers and not from serious journalists. He compounds this silliness by quoting a British expert, plagiarizing Bob Zubrin’s ideas about the crew size and expertise needed for a Mars mission. He seems to feel that sneering at American sexual mores substitutes for normal journalistic fact checking.

He actually seems to take seriously Pierre Kohler’s claims in the “Cosmic Love” chapter of his 2000 book about the Russian space station, Mir, called La Derniere Mission (The Final Mission.) Kohler was taken in by a famous Internet hoax that claimed that NASA had arranged for a married couple to “do the deed” on the lower deck of the shuttle. No doubt the UK’s ferocious libel laws prevented him from repeating Kohler’s equally ludicrous claims that the first Englishwoman in space had intimate relations with both cosmonauts on Mir in 1991. One also has to wonder if his paper would allow him to repeat some of the anti-environmentalist information that Kohler promulgated in his 2002 book, L’Imposture Verte.

The whole sex in space issue is sadly not going to go away. Do we have an option of giving any degree of privacy to this planet’s astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts? Probably yes, but only if NASA and the other space agencies can curb their bureaucratic instincts to control every minute of activity on board manned spacecraft. Chemically controlling the natural urges of astronauts seems more than a bit of overkill. We’re not talking about teenagers doing their bunny rabbit imitations, but middle-aged men and women whose professionalism is unmatched.

It is doubtful that any serious paper in the US, or France or Russia for that matter, would publish something as ill informed and silly as this. Sadly, this sort of thing is all too common in the British press and is probably due to the lack of a British human spaceflight program. There has never been a single British astronaut. The above-mentioned Englishwoman was on a private trip and English-born astronauts Michael Foale and Piers Sellers are American citizens. The long-standing decision of the British government not to participate in any human space activities, either with ESA or with NASA, has created a cramped and antagonistic perception of all space activities that led, in part, to the sadly underfunded Beagle Mars lander project. Human and robotic space exploration go hand-in-hand, as many heroic members of the BIS have long tried to explain to their fellow citizens.

Britain is a prosperous and technologically creative place yet, aside from a few brilliant exceptions, such as Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, it has missed out on the great space adventure. Space News recently pointed out that the British space industry is “resilient” but, in point of fact, it’s pitifully small—501 million pounds, in 2003, for hardware. This is hardly the performance to be expected from the world’s fourth or fifth largest economy.

Back in the 1960s, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, promised to take Britain into the “White Heat” of the technological revolution. The British government spent billions of pounds on dead-end projects like the Concorde. (The US space shuttle, sadly, is ending up in a similar cul de sac.) In the end, neither Labour nor Tory governments were able to integrate space policy into any sort of broad national strategy. Other major European governments, such as France, Germany, and Italy, have been able to build and leverage space science and technology for their national and European goals. Why has the UK failed to produce a balanced space program?

The British government’s attitude towards space is a product of the pre-Thatcher years of economic decline.

One reason might be the supposedly traditional British combination of pragmatism and reluctance to accept new technologies. Edmund Hillary could climb Mount Everest because “it was there,” but few people in Britain see the point of going to the Moon or elsewhere in the solar system. They simply do not see the point. It’s a bit of a myth to think that the people of the UK are slow to adopt new technologies. Like other nations, they are slow to adopt devices and products that were not invented by themselves, or adapted to their distinct needs.

The biggest problem with the British space program is, in fact, recent history. The British government’s attitude towards space is a product of the pre-Thatcher years of economic decline. In the 1970s, when Britain had lost much of its self-confidence, and its industry was falling apart due to strikes, mismanagement and government incompetence, other European nations were laying the foundations for projects such as Ariane.

In the 1980s, while Margaret Thatcher and her team revitalized Britain’s economy and renewed its national self-confidence, space policy remained as it had been in the 1970s. They turned down invitations to join France’s aborted Hermes spaceplane project and Ronald Reagan’s space station program. Being a scientist herself, it may be that she did not look at space with the kind of farsighted and comprehensive attitude she brought to so many other endeavors. Instead, she followed the scientific establishment’s simplistic credo, “robots good, people bad.”

British leaders probably felt that they could not afford a space program and, that anyway, such a program would fail to bring any tangible benefits to their country. Thus, Britain became allergic to human spaceflight. A few visionary entrepreneurs and engineers, such as Sir Martin Sweeting of SSTL, and the team that created the HOTOL design, have kept Britain from a being totally absent from the great adventure—but no thanks to the British government, or to the ruling establishment, or to its tame press.