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HOUSTON, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- A decade-old old Internet hoax about NASA "space sex experiments" has again popped up to excite and confuse the public, space experts have learned.

In response, NASA officials have severely criticized those in the news media who presented the material without adequate verification.

The media's attention was revived this week by publicity swirling about the release of a book by French astronomer Pierre Kohler called, "The Final Mission," to be published in Paris on Thursday. In advance publicity, Kohler described the contents of an allegedly secret NASA report about experiments involving different sexual positions in the zero-gravity conditions of weightlessness.

The press reports say the book, a chronology of Russia's Mir space station published by Calmann-Levy in Paris, describes a "Document 12-571-3570" detailing 10 different male-female positions which were actually tested on space shuttle mission STS-75. The shuttle mission was launched in early 1996. Most of the positions involved physical restraint systems to keep the couples close together.

Neither the publisher nor the author, a prolific author of popular books on astronomy, space, and UFOs, could be reached for comment. NASA officials have branded the document and its contents a hoax. "There is no truth to it at all," declared Johnson Space Center spokesman Eileen Hawley in Houston. She told UPI she had first seen the bogus report five years ago, and on some Internet sites it is identified as having been posted from the University of Iowa in 1989.

Brian Welch, NASA's 'Director of Media Services', was more vehement. "We categorically deny there is any such document," he told UPI. "This is a fairly well-known 'urban legend'", he continued, and expressed dismay that anyone could still be taken in by it without checking it out.

And in an exclusive interview with UPI, Dr. Rhea Seddon, one of America's first women astronauts, called the reports "ludicrous". She continued, "In my opinion, the [story] is pure fabrication."

Allegations of sexual activity in space have circulated for almost as long as there have been mixed crews on manned spacecraft. Among space flight experts, it is commonly believed that such private activity has actually occurred.

In August 1982, Russian cosmonaut and aerobatics pilot Svetlana Savitskaya spe nt a week aboard the Salyut-7 space station in the company of four male cosmonauts. "They greeted me at the hatch with an apron," she later recalled, and then tersely described how she rebuffed that attitude and established a professional working relationship with them.

Less than a year later, America's first woman in space, Sally Ride, shared a space shuttle cabin with four men for a week.

Since then, more than thirty women have taken part in space shuttle missions as regular crewmembers. One Russian and one American woman have conducted months-long tours on the Mir space station.

In September 1992, two married astronauts flew aboard STS-47, a "Spacelab" science mission. Mark Lee and Jan Davis got married after being assigned to the crew. They were divorced several years later.

Although spacecraft are commonly thought to be crowded and lacking in privacy, shuttle missions with Spacelab modules do provide extra room as well as private space in small bunks with sliding doors. In addition, manned space vehicles tend to be very noisy, with loud fans and other mechanical equipment providing a background din.

Consequently, experts who spoke privately with UPI do not consider it implausible that men and women in space have on occasion engaged in traditional off-hours paired recreational activities. "I'd be astonished if it hasn't happened," one told UPI, "and it's nobody else's business."

But these same space medical experts said it was easy to recognize the Internet report of an official experiment as a hoax. There is no such NASA program looking at psychological aspects of long-duration space flight. And they agreed with Welch's assertion that the alleged document's identification number wasn't even consistent with NASA standards. Houston space center official Eileen Hawley also pointed out that the cited shuttle mission, STS-75, had carried seven men and no women.

Seddon, an medical doctor who made three shuttle missions between 1985 and 1993, was a specialist in space medical experiments and now serves on one of NASA's advisory councils for life science research. "I have never heard of any experiments that even vaguely resemble those mentioned in the article," she told UPI.

She found the entire idea of sexual space experiments implausible: "I cannot imagine that the many review panels that must approve research on the Shuttle would ever let this go forward, that any crew members would sign up for it or that any Shuttle Commander would allow it to be a part of his or her flight," she went on.

Seddon concluded: "All astronauts are serious, professional people who work very hard to make sure the time they are given in space is used in the most efficient and responsible way."

Welch expressed similar exasperation at the news stories. "What is frustrating about this is that these news agencies didn't bother to call NASA to check on the story," he told UPI. "NASA has officially asked Agence France Presse for a retraction of its story," he added.

"There's no reason that American taxpayers should have to watch their civil servants having to bat down these silly rumors," he concluded.


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