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Are We Ready to Have Babies in Space?

As technology progresses, and people start to talk seriously about trips to Mars or other planets, the questions of love and sex in space become more pressing

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Space suits might not be this sexy, but sex is space is bound to happen. Image: Timothy Wells

If reality television has taught anybody anything, it’s that if you put a bunch of people together in a small space for a period of time, they’re going to have sex. Space exploration is really no exception to that. So as technology progresses and people start to talk seriously about trips to Mars or other planets, the questions of love and sex in space become more pressing. But would it actually be a terrible idea to have a child in space?

Before astronauts go into space, they have to do a lot of physically strenuous tasks. Science knows quite a bit about what the adult (mostly male) body does in space, how its muscles and bones react and how microgravity effects the body. But no one really knows anything about how the female reproductive system changes or is impacted. Live Science writes about some new plant research that might provide clues:

The news that University of Montreal researchers found that reproductive processes in plants were affected by changes in gravity is very important because it gives us a clue as to how the human reproductive system might react to micro- or hyper-gravity. That study only increases my concern that there could be trouble ahead for babies conceived in space, as well as for the mothers.

If a baby was conceived in space and it did manage to grow into a fetus, no one really knows the impacts that growing up in zero gravity might have on the development of a tiny human. Would neurons and blood vessels and muscles grow and develop the same way? MSNBC reported a few years ago on just a few of the concerns:

For example, Russian studies with pregnant rats showed a 13 to 17 percent arrest in the development of nearly every area of the fetal skeleton in zero-G, he said. Logan also noted that the proper formation of neural connections — a process that continues even after birth — requires movement under gravity loading. Immune functions are also compromised in microgravity.

At Wired, they argue that NASA and the rest of the space agencies need to be ready to address this question, because, like we all learned from television, it’s bound to come up. They write:

We need to acknowledge that humans will bring our sexuality with us into space and that includes all the complexities of relationships as well as the relatively simple matter of bodies. NASA cannot avoid confronting those complexities, especially now that the public knows even astronauts sometimes confuse obsession with love.

“How long can humans go without sex?” is not the right question.

I don’t care if you have a same-sex crew of great-grandparents who have never had a flicker of sexual desire in their entire lives. Lock a group of humans into a ship, sail them through space and time, and it won’t take long for that deep, ancient need for touch and intimacy to surface.

Back at Live Science, author Laura Woodmansee thinks we’re just not ready to have women having babies in space:

The research that has come out today on plant sex and conception in space highlights the fact that we simply don’t know the impact space conditions would have on human conception and pregnancy. Right now, it would be unethical to conceive a baby in orbit, or even risk conception. That’s my bottom line.

But, if reality television has taught us one other thing, it’s that just because something is a bad idea doesn’t mean people won’t try it.

More from Smithsonain.com:

Earth from Space
Quirkiest Space Shuttle Science

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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