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Sex, Death, Mars, and NASA got its hands on a NASA document on crew health issues, and wonders what will happen when astronauts get randy or sick (or dead) on a mission to Mars.

Naturally, they start out with the more titillating of the two:

One topic that is evidently too hot to handle: How do you cope with sexual desire among healthy young men and women during a mission years long?

Sex is not mentioned in the document and has long been almost a taboo topic at NASA. Williams said the question of sex in space is not a matter of crew health but a behavioral issue that will have to be taken up by others at NASA.

The agency will have to address the matter sooner or later, said Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania who has advised NASA since 2001.

Assuming the astronauts themselves haven’t already addressed it. Heh.

“There is a decision that is going to have to be made about mixed-sex crews, and there is going to be a lot of debate about it,” he said.

Note the bleedingly obvious unstated assumption here. If they think they’ll have a debate over mixed-sex crews, imagine if they decide to go single-sex and then have to deal with the even more charged issue of gay and lesbian astronauts…if mixed-sex crews are ruled out on the grounds that sexual desire among mixed-sex crewmates working in a confined environment for a couple years would be distracting or disruptive, how could they not then rule out homosexuals on the same basis?

And even if they opted to send only married couples, it wouldn’t guarantee that the opposite — strife between or even infidelity among the spouses — wouldn’t turn out to be just as distracting or disruptive. Perhaps the only way to get around this family of problems (if they even prove to be significant problems) is by sending larger crews — how much larger and whether the number would be practical is anyone’s guess, though I’d be surprised if NASA or DoD haven’t done research in that area already.

Other matters should me more straightforward, I should think:

But on other topics — such as steps for disposing of the dead and cutting off an astronaut’s medical care if he or she cannot survive — the document merely says these are issues for which NASA needs a policy.

Simple: if an astronaut dies while in space en-route, they get a space-age burial at sea. The concern over this possibility (and any reluctance to simply commit the body to the deep) is probably motivated by fears of negative public reaction, but would the public necessarily respond negatively — or would they expect it? After all, there is at least one widely-known fictional precedent to point to: that of Frank Poole in 2001. Not to mention ample historical examples of sea burial over the past several centuries.

As for pulling the plug…is this really any more complicated than the equivalent situation which arises in hospitals and nursing homes every day? Require astronauts on long-duration, long-distance missions to create a living will, stating their wishes should this happen. Of course, the policy concerning the fellow crewmember who has to pull the plug — withholding futile treatment, or administering the inevitable death — is another matter, but even that has precedent in war and natural disaster situations.

I can understand NASA wanting (and simultaneously being reluctant) to have policies in place which cover these subjects, though: it is, after all, a government agency whose existence depends on support from Congress (and by extension, in theory at least, the citizenry). Such matters, handled poorly — and especially if handled poorly in an ad-hoc manner — could create a public uproar and uncomfortable questions from oversight committees.

But, you know…there’s something about the concept of issuing command media concerning romance and death that somehow sucks the drama out of space exploration.

[hat tip: Aaron_J]

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