There’s no denying that the most exciting next step in space exploration is the colonization of Mars. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has been talking about colonizing the red planet for years now. In fact, with recent advancements in technology, Musk claims that a flight to Mars may be possible “within as soon as seven years, with a ticket price of around a couple of hundred thousand dollars.” And while this might seem unaffordable to average folk, there are already many who are interested in a one-way ticket.
Even if Musk proves able to deliver on his promises within the given timeframe, a successful colony requires much more than a bunch of humans being shipped off to outer space. Out of the many issues brought to the surface from this endeavor, one of the biggest is reproduction. Even though long-term space flights might offer opportunities to engage in baby-making, scientific research indicates that sex and pregnancy in space can be potentially disastrous.
When it comes to reproduction, space isn’t the place — so much so that experts at LiveScience describe space as “as one big birth control system.” A space-sex study shows that cosmic radiation would lead to a major decrease in sperm count.
Further, fetuses wouldn’t be able to develop properly. According to the study, even modern day space suits don’t have enough radiation protection to allow zygotes to develop. So, in the unlikely chance that a baby could make it out of the womb, it would have a high probability of birth defects. These predictions are corroborated by experiments on reproduction that have been conducted in space, albeit on mice, fish, lizards, and invertebrates.
The Atlantic cites a study from the 1990s, where pregnant rats gave birth after a week on a U.S. space mission. On birth, each rat pup had “an underdeveloped vestibular system, the inner-ear structure that allows mammals to balance and orient themselves.” Why? Well, it turns out that the absence of gravity in space had thrown the rat babies off-balance. As stated in the article, “The animals’ sense of balance recovered not long after birth, but the lesson was clear: Animal infants need gravity.”
The lack of gravity in space also makes it harder for people to have sex in the first place. As stated in the LiveScience article, “Microgravity decreases blood pressure, which could prevent the guy’s penis from becoming fully erect.” Add to that the possibility of bodily fluids floating around the cabin, and sex in space becomes what physicist and astronomer John Millis calls “a logistical nightmare.”
Babies of the Future
Doing the deed in space seems far from feasible, but this hasn’t stopped certain startups from fantasizing about the possibility of giving birth in microgravity. SpaceLife Origin, based in the Netherlands, is one such example. As stated in The Atlantic, this startup wants to send, “wants to send a pregnant woman, accompanied by a trained, world-class medical team, in a capsule to the space above Earth.”
The mission would be anywhere between 24 to 36 hours, and once the baby has been delivered, the capsule would return safely back to Earth. According to Egbert Edelbroek, one of the company’s executives, space-faring childbirth acts as a sort of insurance policy for humankind. For Edelbroek, the distant possibility that humans could settle in outer space is utterly pointless without learning how to reproduce in the space environment.
Obviously, SpaceLife Origin’s mission is mighty controversial. Pregnancy on Earth can be challenging enough, and a healthy pregnancy requires a sufficient amount of care. The right amount of sleep, correct diet, and avoiding certain medications and activities are all crucial to a normal delivery. For instance, pregnant women are advised to be cautious when it comes to x-ray imaging, due to potential pregnancy complications from the x-ray radiation. The level of radiation in space is exponentially higher than that of a traditional x-ray. With this in mind, there’s no saying how space radiation will affect the mother or the baby.
Giving birth in space also raises the issue of immediate aftercare. The article in the Atlantic quotes Virginia Wotring, a professor of space medicine at Baylor College of Medicine:
Most of the pregnant women I know feel great comfort in knowing that they have access to medical help if there’s an issue during a delivery—or prior to a delivery, or after a delivery. Putting people in a situation where they are many, many, many miles away from medical help does not seem to be advisable.
These are just a few of the millions of obstacles SpaceLife Origin will have to overcome to make their mission a reality.
One possibility is turning to AI for help. AI and machine learning have made waves in the medical field, with AI technology helping in early detection of diseases, accurate diagnoses, and quicker treatment. Experts at Regis College state that by 2021, “the AI market for health care is projected to reach $6.68 billion. The market for robots in health care is predicted to hit $2.8 billion in that same time frame.”
In terms of childbirth specifically, a group of MIT researchers have already developed an AI powered robot that can help doctors in the labor room. In a subsequent study, the researchers found that the robot’s recommendations were accepted 90% of the time.
As recently as November 2018, AI was also introduced to space. The Crew Interactive Mobile Companion, or CIMON for short, became space’s first ever AI device when it arrived at the International Space Station as part of its 57th mission. CIMON has the ability to help astronauts with their everyday repair work, floating alongside them while providing guidance and instructions. In the future, AI devices like CIMON have the potential of being valuable tools for those on space missions.
Combining AI in medicine with AI in space could one day lead to the robot-assisted deliveries for pregnant women millions of miles away somewhere in the cosmos. It is a far-fetched thought, but so is the idea of flying a woman to space to give birth. For visions of companies like SpaceLife Origin to become realities in the future, only the exploration of radical solutions will suffice. For now though, it’s safe to say that pregnancy and the acts that lead to it are better left down here on Earth.