"I mean, what else are they gonna do?" I asked in this morning's news meeting.
"They could just... watch TV," quipped Discovery News Tech Producer Tracy Staedter.
Rarely does a single topic invoke such interest, humor and popularity than sex. If you throw space exploration into the mix, you get the "alien" (and genuinely weird) subject of space sex.
What's more, although sex is one of the most basic of human functions, space sex is one of the greatest unknowns in the history of manned spaceflight - apart from a few hushed rumors, sex in space has never been attempted. However, as we are about to discover, future human sexuality in space - particularly in interstellar space - may not be very familiar... or even desirable (for procreation purposes, at least).
So, there I was on the phone, with my Discovery News colleagues, discussing an article that appeared in the Daily Mail in the wake of last week's 100 Year Starship Study (100YSS) symposium in Orlando, Fla. Of course sex wasn't the main thrust of the symposium, it was the awesome task facing mankind should we decide to become an interstellar race, sex in zero-G just made a fantastic news hook.
But should we truly become a star-hopping civilization, how would we fill the time between the stars? Well there's Tracy's suggestion, but in the interest of continuing the human race beyond Earth's atmosphere (and gravity), some interesting questions of sex (and, presumably, Karma Sutra poses) will arise.
Let's face it, interstellar space travel isn't for wimps, so the first interstellar spaceship will most likely be unmanned. Unless you're an anatomically-correct robot, then I'm thinking space sex won't feature very highly on the interstellar to-do list.
For example, Project Icarus - headed by regular Discovery News contributor Richard Obousy - is one such study into sending mankind's influence to a nearby star. Using fusion propulsion, the Icarus starship will need to traverse the light-years to arrive at (or fly by) another star within the time frame of a human lifetime. Let's say 50 years.
The Icarus Interstellar team were present at the symposium, along with a thousand others, to discuss the idea that one day we might reach another star. As mentioned by Discovery News space correspondent Irene Klotz (who was also present at the symposium), the challenges are formidable.
After all, if the Voyager 1 probe - the fastest-moving man-made object in space - was aimed at Proxima Centauri (the nearest stellar neighbor), it would take in the ballpark of 100,000 years to get there. Ouch. If you think we humans are naturally quarantined from the rest of the galaxy, you wouldn't be far wrong.
In terms of cosmic timescales of millions or billions of years, 100,000 years is tiny. But for human experience, this is a horrid situation. Thousands of civilizations have come and gone in that time frame; waiting 100,000 years to reach another star is just plain silly.
No. We need another way. We need new ideas for spacecraft propulsion. We need new concepts for spaceship design. Hell, we need the USS Enterprise! (And I'm not joking.)
Hence why DARPA, with the help of NASA, set up the whole 100 Year Starship Study in the first place. Be sure to keep up with the mind-boggling Icarus Project, a team of scientists and engineers all providing original content to Discovery News, describing every aspect of a 50 year mission to another star. Space may be big, but it doesn't mean we can't think big. Icarus is one of the hopeful contenders for the 100YSS $500,000 prize to further develop their concept.
But sex wasn't far away from the symposium's agenda, especially when considering that eventually human beings may want to make the trip beyond the solar system - for what reason, apart from pure exploration-sake, is far from certain at this stage.
"Sex is very difficult in zero gravity, because you have no traction and you keep bumping against the walls," said biologist Athena Andreadis of the University of Massachusetts, who gave a 100YSS talk called "Making Aliens."
Also, giving birth is no picnic either.
"Giving birth in zero gravity is going to be hell because gravity helps you," she said. "You rely on the weight of the baby."
But this discussion is moot considering the kind of human-rated vehicle we'd have to build to make the trip. Assuming warp-driven spacecraft won't be a reality for the immediate future, our future interstellar travelers will spend their lives in an interstellar craft. In fact, it's conceivable that generations of people will live out their lives forever gliding through the interstellar void.
These starships wouldn't just be incredible technological feats, they'd also be the grandest social experiment ever attempted!
So these long-duration vehicles will have to address the gravity issue (perhaps with artificial gravity-creating centrifuges) and they will need to be self-sustaining. In short, barring any serious overhauls of the human physiology through technological or genetic means, the starship will need to provide everything we need for an interstellar civilization to thrive. The sex thing will probably come as natural to interstellar humans as it does to their terrestrial counterparts.
But what will we do once we arrive at our first interstellar destination? Will we colonize the first "habitable" planet we come across? What if we need to adapt our destination to make it suitable for human habitation?
"Not only are we bad at terraforming, but we don't have the life span or the attention span to carry it through," said Andreadis. "Terraforming is a failure of the imagination. It's like people who take those expensive trips to Paris and eat at McDonald's."
Alternatively, rather than changing alien environments to suit us, perhaps we can change ourselves to adapt to alien environments.
"We will have to grow up and do self-directed evolution, realizing that what comes out of the other end may not be human," she added. "If we stake our future among the stars, we must change for the journey and the destination."
So, although sex in space will always be a headline-grabber and an excuse to post pictures of Jane Fonda in various famous Barbarella poses (top, sorry, couldn't resist), the bigger picture is whether or not we'd even need a basic human impetus like sex to maintain a human presence throughout the cosmos.
This is especially true if, as Andreadis points out, our interstellar descendants aren't even human.
Image credit: Corbis