Born Out of This World

Dutch Company SpaceBorn United proposes the use of special IVF technology to make human reproduction in space possible.

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By Christina Chen

“Where were you born?” Most people answer this icebreaker by stating their country of origin. One day, there might be a new answer to this question—outer space! Currently, scientists are planning for the first birth of a human baby in space, a milestone that will build upon the fascination with inhabiting other planets. Global warming, the fast-melting west Antarctic sheet, highly destructive meteors, and other events have placed extensive pressure on Earth, encouraging humans to consider the possibility of colonizing other planets. To achieve a successful extraterrestrial settlement, it is crucial to figure out how conception and birth would work in space. 

Though the prospect of space births may sound enticing, reproduction in space poses many challenges. Sexual intercourse and intimacy between people in space would be hampered by the lack of gravity. Space experiments involving guinea pigs have shown that many sexual positions are limited by the weightless atmosphere. Fluids such as vaginal discharge and semen float around, making copulation quite challenging. 

In addition, microgravity, the lack of gravity that induces a feeling of weightlessness in space, can cause trouble for women in labor. In an experiment on a Soviet satellite in 1983, pregnant rats had difficulties during labor and delivery. The mother rats were exhausted and weak due to uterine muscle atrophy—the wasting away of muscles in the uterus—that resulted from delayed delivery. The rats experienced muscle atrophy because they were unable to exercise their muscles in weightless conditions. Additionally, cosmic radiation, which consists of high-energy charged particles and rays, could cause cancer in embryos. Among other possible health issues that could arise for embryos in extraterrestrial environments, many ethical concerns have been raised. 

In spite of these challenges, the Dutch company SpaceBorn United plans to make extraterrestrial birth possible. Researchers are developing miniature IVFs (in-vitro fertilization) and embryo incubators for space birth. IVF is an effective and common solution to infertility on Earth, in which eggs are collected from a female’s ovaries and combined in a laboratory with sperm from the male partner. The IVFs will be condensed into CD-ROM-sized discs composed of tiny microchannels. The microchannels will hold sperm and eggs, which can be programmed to complete fertilization when all the channels are connected. After the eggs are fertilized and undergo five to six days of growth, the embryos will be cryogenically frozen in special incubators to halt growth and bodily functioning. This setup will also protect them from cosmic radiation and powerful G-forces (measured acceleration) when the spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. In 2024, SpaceBorn plans to test a prototype of the modified IVF on mice in a minilab in space. The mouse embryos will be fertilized in space under simulated Earth gravity, cryogenically frozen in incubators, sent back to Earth, and implanted in a mouse mother. If the baby mice turn out to be healthy, then SpaceBorn will repeat the experiment under the simulated gravity conditions of other planets by designing the IVF to rotate at certain speeds. This will allow them to determine if human embryos can survive in such environments. However, humanity will likely have to wait many years—most likely even decades—before extraplanetary success can be achieved with mice. Scientists have to address the health concerns and other unforeseen consequences on mouse embryos in space first.

Though SpaceBorn’s high aspirations have garnered widespread interest, it still needs additional funding to support its projects. SpaceBorn founder Egbert Edelbroek argues that while space reproduction research is not always prioritized in the scientific world, it’s important to learn more about it. Learning to safely reproduce beyond Earth could help make permanent human settlement on Mars possible (which companies like SpaceX are already attempting). It could also provide insight into reproduction on Earth, and vice versa. Studying gametogenesis in different settings could highlight differences experienced with cosmic radiation and earthly environmental pollutants. Thus, research in space reproduction is worthwhile since it poses benefits for humanity both within and beyond Earth.

Despite the possibilities in the field, there have been ethical concerns about using live embryos in space. Many critics point out the dangers of exposing vulnerable human embryos to an environment that humans have not evolved to survive in. Moreover, there could be risks when bodily fluids are not pulled down by Earth’s gravity. While adult humans can endure such abnormalities, it is unknown whether human embryos and babies can withstand the conditions in space. Another concern is that if embryos were modified for survival, what would happen to humans born in space when they visit Earth? Would they be able to survive? Ethically, reproduction in space still has a long way to go.

Ultimately, SpaceBorn’s wild ambitions with IVF technology in space have garnered both widespread interest and skepticism. If SpaceBorn succeeds in achieving human reproduction in space, then extraplanetary settlement could become a reality. But whether that goal is achieved or not, the advancements in reproductive care and technology for space reproduction will reciprocate back on Earth. The ethical conflicts with endangering human embryos and their unexpected consequences will take time to be resolved. Until all health concerns have been fully addressed, humanity must continue to expand on Earth alone.