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Houston, We Might Have Some Major Problems Making Babies in Space

From risky pregnancies to birth defects to problems with inbreeding, it just seems like a bad idea

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The most exciting next(ish) step in space exploration is surely to set up a human colony on Mars (or maybe Venus). Plenty of people are interested in a one-way ticket. But if the colony is to be permanently successful, a big issue will need to be addressed: How do we make babies beyond the Earth? Even longterm spaceflight offers potential opportunities to engage in reproduction, but all the science so far indicates that it might not be a good idea.

For Motherboard at Vice, Daniel Oberhaus delves into the reasons that we should consider keeping the kibosh on baby making in space. When we’ve studied the effects of microgravity on fetal development in rats, geckos, sea urchins and even birds, viability was usually lower and sometimes unusual abnormalities cropped up. Also, there's a concern that space pregnancy could be taxing for the women carrying the babies. 

Why are we thinking about it at all? Oberhaus writes:

The risk of pregnancy in space isn't idle speculation: between 1989 and 2006, seven pregnancies were documented at Australian Antarctic research stations, an environment which is frequently used as a space analog due to its isolation. It’s a staggering number and suggests that dangerous environs alone aren’t significant deterrents for their horny inhabitants.

As a result NASA’s official policy forbids pregnancy in space. Female astronauts are tested regularly in the 10 days prior to launch. And sex in space is very much frowned upon. So far the have been no confirmed instances of coitus, though lots of speculation.

Even if NASA and other space agencies have seriously considered the idea of investigating the pros and cons of sex in space, it may have taken the back burner to more pressing mission goals. Astronaut Ron Garan confirmed in a 2012 Reddit AMA that the ISS does have space for astronauts to find some "quiet time" should they need it. (The consensus seems to be that he may have been referring obliquely to masturbation.) For Motherboard, Daniel Oberhaus asked Garan to clarify. "I can only speak for myself, but we’re professionals,” he said. “It’s in the realm of what is possible, but the missions are so busy and intense, that it’s normal to just focus on the mission."

Even if the free time came up, NASA may have scrapped the idea in favor of keeping the group cohesive.  Paul Root Wolpe, the Director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics and a senior bioethicist at NASA, explains:

The ethical issues [of taking sex to space] are not so much around the act itself, but the implications. There’s a whole series of questions we’d want to ask about what it would mean to actually have two members of the crew actually have sex in space in terms of what their relationship would be and what their relationship would be in relation to the other crew members. How would it affect people psychologically?

While those questions haven’t been answered yet, they will be in future long term missions—especially if humans set out to colonize another planet. Even the effects of Mars’ slightly lower gravity may be a cause for concern 

But that pales in comparison to the challenge of keeping genetic diversity rich enough for the colonists to survive. According to Portland State University anthropologist Cameron Smith, the ideal number of colonists needed to maintain near 100 percent genetic diversity is between 10,000 and 40,000, reports Oberhaus. That’s a lot of bodies to move to Mars.

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