Sex Geckos Sent to Space

Photo Credit: Oleg Voloshin, Institute of Medico-Biological Problems
Photo Credit: Oleg Voloshin, Institute of Medico-Biological Problems

By Hanae Armitage
BU News Service

I can’t say I’ve ever thought about my ability to reproduce in zero gravity. But fortunately for me—and the rest of humanity that doesn’t actively contemplate space sex—a team of Russian scientists have wondered for us.

Actually, “wonder” is a bit of an understatement. These scientists rocketed five geckos (one male and four females) into space on a satellite called Foton-M4 with the intention of monitoring “the effect of microgravity on sexual behavior.” In other words, they wanted to see if geckos could do it mid-float in space. I like to think that as the Russian scientists unsuspectingly waved the geckos goodbye, they said “Do it for science.”

And the geckos had company. The Foton-M4 also hosted a multitude of life-in-space experiments, with organisms ranging from fruit flies to fungus to microbes.

But why, Russia?

For the benefit of our great-great-great grandchildren’s great-great-great grandchildren. They wanted to test the waters of space life and, specifically, the possibility of procreation for future humans—so naturally, they thought to extrapolate from geckos.

To be fair, they didn’t just fling lusty geckos into orbit on any old satellite. They flung lusty geckos into orbit in a satellite that had, what they hoped, was sure-fire sex appeal.

In the experiment, Gecko-F4, the very first objective was to “create the conditions for sexual behavior” (only science knows how you set the mood for gecko sex) and installed cameras. Unfortunately, shortly after launch, the signal was lost.

After a stressful three days, Russia’s space agency regained a connection with Foton-M4 on July 28th. (Side note: I turned 22 that day — best birthday present ever.) But one month later the satellite came prematurely crashing back to Earth and when researchers inspected the satellite, they found all five love geckos dead. Scientists suspect that part of the heater in the satellite broke and the poor critters froze to death. No one knows if they ever got it on.

Scientists on the experiment tried to console the public by shifting attention to the fruit flies that were also aboard Foton-M4 — they survived and procreated.

It’s funny to see what attracts people’s attention. This topic—gecko sex in space—took a firm hold of the public internationally; NPR, CNN, NBC, The Guardian, The BBC; they all covered it. One article compared Gecko-F4 to the Apollo 13 mission. And I agree, they’re very similar. Except in Apollo 13 a brave group of astronauts overcame tremendous obstacles and returned safely to earth, and in Gecko-F4, Russians shot sex-lizards into space, lost them, and they died.

I never thought I’d say this, but we should learn from this experience—let’s take better care not to endanger the lives of innocent geckos when we rocket them into space for a sex experiment.

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Posted by: Hanae Armitage on