Colonising Mars involves many challenges. While SpaceX is figuring out how to get to Mars in a sustainable and cost efficient way, there are also many psychological obstacles that astronauts will have to face when travelling to, and living on, the red planet. Some of these issues are being addressed, such as the problem of ‘menu fatigue’. But other aspects of human nature will also be put under pressure during long-term space travel. One of these is the human need for love.
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a paper titled A Theory of Human Motivation in which he developed a ‘hierarchy of needs’ (1). This hierarchy is often presented as a pyramid, with more basic needs at the bottom. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been criticised (2), but nonetheless, it can still offer a useful perspective on human motivation. The third category from the bottom is love/belonging. Indeed, other psychologists maintain that love and belonging are fundamental human needs (3, 4).
The need for love and belonging can be expressed in many ways. One of these is sexual intimacy. Other ways include being nurtured, in the form of contact comfort (5) – the innate pleasure derived from close physical contact. Findings show that babies who are deprived contact comfort, particularly in the first six months after they’re born, develop psychological issues (6). This suggests that contact comfort is a basic human need.
Our need for love means that we seek out healthy relationships in order to feel fulfilled. But of course, love isn’t a one-way street. We also have a desire to love and nurture others. Professor Michael Norton delivered a fascinating TED talk on this deep-seated and universal desire to love others (7). We don’t always recognise it or express it, because of cultural influences, but it’s there.
We can see past the cultural message that happiness lies only in being the recipient of love, rather than the giver. And we can take steps to become a more loving son, friend or partner. But for an astronaut it’s slightly different. The mission to Mars could be three years in duration. And for all this time they will be without their family, friends and partner (or any potential partners). Being in space for so long will really highlight how deep-seated this need to love and be loved is. Because going without it for so long will start to affect the astronauts’ well-being.
Image credit: Wikipedia
Sex in space
Although it doesn’t look like astronauts have been hooking up in space, it’s going to happen eventually (8, 9). Professor Lawrence Palinkas from UCLA said:
“Certainly at polar research stations, there’s sexual relations, sexual contact, between men and women. On a three-year mission to Mars, that’s a possibility as well, although NASA in the past has tried to downplay the need for and the implications of sexual needs on a mission that long.”
But if sexual intimacy is a basic human need, then NASA shouldn’t be downplaying it. If they are working on tackling the problem of menu fatigue by developing suitable menus and the possibility of cooking in space, then the problem of love/sex deprivation should be addressed as well. It might be a bit more awkward to examine the issue, but in order to ensure that the mission to, and colonisation of, Mars is going to be successful, then we have to be realistic about the challenges involved.
Going without sex for three years can easily lead to sexual frustration. Astronauts, like all people, will no doubt have sexual thoughts, feelings and desires during this time.
Since the 80s, space missions have been co-ed, routinely including one or two women. Professor Jason Kring, of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, said:
“[For] a true long-duration mission if we go to Mars or back to the moon, politically, I don’t think you’re going to see an all male or all ‘American’ crew.”
He added that, politics aside:
“research would suggest that a mixed crew of men and women would probably be best.”
Other than deciding to hook up with a crew member, there is also the challenge of actually having sex in a microgravity environment. In her book Sex in Space, science journalist Laura Woodmansee writes about several positions that could work.
But sexual intimacy is just one aspect of love. While crew members might become sexual partners, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will love each other. The human need to be loved and to love could be met by the deep bonds of friendship that form among the crew members.
Also, talking to loved ones back home is important (10). Astronaut Tim Peake said that “even astronauts need hugs” (11). So perhaps crew members will have to become a bit more intimate with each other.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog (samreflectsontravel.com) and personal blog (www.samwoolfe.com) to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.