Culture

Could a human be born in space?

We all know that prolonged space habitation can play merry havoc on the human body. But could a human being still be conceived — and born — in space?

(Fetus week 9-10 image by lunar caustic, CC BY-SA 2.0; Alpha Capricorni image by Friendlystar, CC BY 3.0)

We all know that prolonged space habitation can play merry havoc on the human body. But could a human being still be conceived — and born — in space?

Hanging out in space isn't all freeze-dried food and floating around like a moon man. Because we originate from a terran environment, with an atmosphere and gravity and fresh vegetables and all those other lovely things, being in space for any length of time can have a pretty detrimental effect on the human body.

For starters, there is what is called "spaceflight osteopenia". This is where, due to the weightless environment, human bones start to lose density at a rate of about 1 per cent per month. Normally, human bones break down and rebuild themselves at a pretty consistent rate; in space, however, although the rebuild rate stays the same, the breakdown rate increases, leading to fragile bones.

Then there's muscular atrophy, since it's harder for astronauts to get exercise in enclosed, weightless environments. The International Space Station (ISS) does have an exercise station, but just supporting your weight against the pull of gravity uses muscle; in space, that incidental exercise is gone.

On top of this, astronauts experience a slowed cardiovascular system, a redistribution of fluids in the body (leading to the puffy face that many astronauts exhibit), balance problems, intracranial pressure (thanks to those fluids again, hanging around the skull) causing vision disruption and a high dose of radiation exposure, since there's no ozone layer up there protecting them from UV rays. Overall, removing gravity from the equation mucks with all sorts of delicate balances in the body.

So, could a human being be conceived — and born — in space? What would such a human be like? This question is one tackled by YouTuber Michael Vsauce, as he discusses the logistics of zero-G conception (as well as the difference between zero gravity and zero-G), pregnancy and birth.

Unfortunately, he doesn't really go into the effect it would have on the poor mother. In the absence of adequate nutrition — which we imagine is hard to get in space — the foetus tends to absorb what it needs from the mother's reserves — including calcium. We'd hate to see the state of that poor woman's skeleton after at least nine months pregnant in zero-G.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting watch, with some education to boot.