Space sperm? NASA sending human swimmers to the ISS

Will Earthlings be able to reproduce in space one day? NASA's Mission Micro-11 hopes to find out by launching sperm to the International Space Station.

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
2 min read

Space experiments have tested everything from 4K cameras to growing leafy greens in Zero-G, so why not send human swimmers to the ISS to see what happens when they float around up in the great beyond?

Enlarge Image

At NASA's Kennedy Space Center, researchers prepare sperm samples for launch to ISS.


On Monday, NASA sent frozen human and bull sperm to the ISS to test what happens when it's exposed to anti-gravity. It's just one of an array of science experiments -- ranging from biological tests related to astronaut health to studies involving grass and probiotics -- headed to the space station aboard a SpaceX rocket as part of a mission called Micro-11.

Crew members will thaw and chemically activate the sperm samples to fertilize an egg. They will then video tape the sperm movements, and send data back home to Earth for more scientific analysis.

"Based on previous experiments, it seems the lack of gravity facilitates sperm mobility," Fathi Karouia, a research scientist at the exobiology branch at NASA's Ames Research Center, told Inverse magazine. "This is in line with other investigations on different model organisms which have shown that microgravity conditions trigger faster cell regeneration."

The exobiology branch at Ames Research Center aims to "understand pre-biotic chemistry, and the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe."  The main goal of such research is to better understand what's involved in creating habitable environments in emerging planetary systems.

Studying sperm and how it acts in space makes sense, of course, for future generations that not only plan to visit other planets, but to raise families on them as well. Though as my colleague Michelle Starr reported, sex in space comes with a whole bunch of un-romantic complications, including motion sickness and a lack of ventilation for heavy breathing.

"We still don't know how long-duration space missions affect human reproductive health, and whether infertility may be a risk for future astronauts," NASA said in a statement. "In addition, a successful base on the Moon or Mars may require self-perpetuating colonies of animals and plants."

This isn't the first experiment involving sperm in space. In 2002, NASA published an article called "Floating Fertility" that mentioned German researcher U. Engelmann, who sent samples of bull sperm into orbit aboard a European Space Agency rocket in 1998. His team discovered that the tiny cells in the sperm appeared to move better in a low-gravity environment.

While scientists have been able to successfully breed frogs, salamanders, sea urchins, jellyfish, snails and even worms in space, it will still be awhile before humans start reproducing in space, let alone another planet. 

However, while space babies won't happen anytime soon, this latest Micro-11 mission is "the first mission to apply proven analytical methods to assess the fertility of human and bovine sperm in spaceflight," Karouia says.

Space cheese and other weird items we've sent into orbit

See all photos

Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here's your place for the lighter side of tech.

Special Reports: CNET's in-depth features in one place.