China plans on sending monkeys to its space station to have sex

It is all for science, of course.
Ameya Paleja
Bonobos having sex inside the Chinese space station
An edit of bonobos having sex inside the Chinese space station

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Earlier this week, the Mengtian module docked with the Tiangong space station completing the assembly of the first human outpost in near-Earth orbit that is owned by a single country. South China Morning Post (SCMP) has now reported that Chinese researchers want to take monkeys to orbit so that they can have sex in space.

In the six decades of human space endeavor, there is no record of large animal copulation in space. Scientific missions onboard space shuttles or even the International Space Station (ISS), have carried various life forms, ranging from bacteria to astronauts, who are also experiments in themselves but never have the bigger animals docked, as they would on Earth.

Can one have sex in space?

At a microscopic scale, bacteria can reproduce sexually, so they have had sex in space and returned to Earth. As the size of the organism increases, there are a fair number of problems crop up. Luckily, having a scientific outlook means that we also understand what might be causing these problems.

In a letter to Physiology News Magazine, Adam Watkins, a professor of reproductive and developmental physiology, wrote that staying physically close in zero gravity was quite hard as the lower blood pressure that astronauts experience in space means that maintaining erections and staying aroused were also difficult.

Not to forget that the ISS and spacecraft are severely cramped for space, which leaves no scope for personal, intimate moments even though the vastness of the universe is just beyond the wall.

Smaller animals have had some luck though with some Soviet experiments recording successful intercourse in mice in space, with some even getting pregnant. However, on returning to Earth, none gave birth, SCMP said in its report.

How will monkeys do it then?

Researchers suspect that exposure to cosmic rays which in the absence of Earth's atmosphere are much stronger in space, inflict damage on the quality of sperm and eggs. As humans look to create outposts on the Moon and beyond, it is critical to know whether we can also reproduce safely at these locations.

The monkeys having sex in space is part of that grander plan that could play out just a few years from now, if the likes of Elon Musk are successful. Like the ISS, the Tiangong space station also has multiple modules, and its largest, the Wentian could be host to such an experiment. The module is already the home for life science experiments and its biological cabinets are expandable and reconfigurable, the SCMP report said.

China may start off with smaller animals first and then move on to larger animals to understand how they adapt to microgravity and their space environment. But with the increasing size of the animals, the difficulties will also compound.

For instance, the monkeys will need to be fed regularly and will poop out in zero gravity, which astronauts will have to deal with. Monkeys used in science experiments have usually spent most of their lives in cages. However, for an experiment like this, they would also have to be blasted off to space; something might frighten them to no end.

Under stressful situations, monkeys can respond either with reduced activity or aggressive behavior, both of which would jeopardize the plans. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

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