“All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct” – Carl Sagan captured the interest and imagination of millions of people throughout the world and throughout time. His influence still rings today as countries and aerospace companies around the world race into the dawn of the second space race.
The opening golden gate of this space age reminds us, that there is still much to be done as humanity takes its first steps into becoming a spacefaring civilization. One of the biggest mysteries of microgravity is, what happens when a child is born in space or on another planet? How would we ensure a smooth process of childbirth in microgravity?
Childbirth and Gravity
Previous research has indicated that microgravity negatively affects muscle and bone mass. The longer a person stays in space, the more muscle and bone mass they lose. These effects would be incredibly problematic for the female during child birth. A weak bone mass of the pelvis could potentially lead to a rupture which would be extremely fatal to the female and the infant. But that is merely overcoming one peril of many.
On Earth, the gravity aids in developing infant’s muscle mass and bone density. However, in microgravity, the force of the gravity is substantially weaker. Because of the weaker gravity, the infant’s muscle mass and bone density may not grow to the same extent as infants that were raised on Earth. This could potentially lead to infants which are far more weaker.
Ever wondered how babies develop their sense of balance and their spatial orientation? Or how you can coordinate your movements so effectively? The answer lies in your vestibular system. It is a sensory system which relays information to the brain about motion, head position and spatial orientation. It also aids in keeping our balance, stabilizing our overall movement and posture. During birth, the infant’s vestibular system is stimulated by gravity which helps to stabilize the infant’s spatial orientation and sense of overall movement, including balance. However, in microgravity, there is very little force to stimulate the vestibular system, therefore, potentially leading to a defective vestibular system in an infant.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the potential dangers in giving birth in space or even on other planets. We do not fully know of the dangers of humans giving birth beyond Earth. But that did not stop research from going where no human infant has gone before.
Several small animals and plants have been used in microgravity experiments to explain how microgravity affects reproduction. However, the results have proved to be a mixed bag of conclusions.
In a 2008 study by April E Ronca et al., concluded that rat pups who were exposed to microgravity developed abnormal vestibular system. Further work done on rats in space suggests that microgravity lowers the total amount of rat sperm counts as well as increasing the abnormalities. Additional studies done on crickets, nematodes, fruit flies and medaka fish showed that successful mating and reproduction in space can occur.
The answers to the basic biology questions of birth in space may go unanswered for many years as ethical questions swirl around it. Would it be okay to send a pregnant woman to space for science? Would it be okay for a woman to give birth in space? There are many hurdles to overcome but until we do, we will be forever stuck on the cradle of human civilization. Should we go out there wandering the cosmos, we will have to face the basic biology questions but the reward will be one small step for man, and a giant leap for mankind.