It has already been discussed by experts that humans may eventually colonize to Mars, but the idea of starting a family there may not be so easy. There is obviously a specific string of events that need to take place in order to conceive a baby – from fertilization to giving birth – but there may be several challenges involving the environments in space that could affect that process.
While rats, mice, frogs, salamanders, fish, and plants have been experimented on to determine the effects of reproduction in space, the results remain inconclusive. Kris Lehnhardt, who is a physician at the Baylor College of Medicine, explains, “All of our big tech gurus out there who want us to be a multi-planet civilization – this is a key question that no one has answered yet.”
Two of the biggest obstacles for reproducing in space are the lack of gravity and the large amounts of radiation, specifically on Mars. The Red Planet only has around 38 percent strength of Earth’s downward gravitational pull. And the radiation in space is much stronger than here on our planet, as Earth’s magnetic field protects us from a lot of the damaging cosmic particles. Those two things alone could severely damage a fetus.
In the 1970’s, the Soviets sent several rats into space on the Cosmos 1129 satellite and when they returned, it was revealed that although they did mate in space, the females never delivered any babies.
Then a NASA scientist named April Ronca sent several pregnant rats into space and studied how the late stages of their pregnancies affected them by not being on Earth. When they returned, the birth process was pretty much normal, although some rat pups that were exposed to microgravity did have some abnormalities such as inner-ear problems that affected their senses of detecting movement orientation and direction. In addition, rats’ sperm count decreased in spaceflight, while abnormalities increased. However, Ronca wrote, “The available data suggest that numerous aspects of pregnancy, birth and early mammalian development can proceed under altered gravity conditions.”
Another experiment showed that two-cell mouse embryos that were sent into space didn’t develop any further. On the other hand, a Japanese-led study revealed that freeze-dried mouse sperm was able to create embryos after being in space for nine months.
While mice and rats have different and inconclusive results, it’s still unclear whether humans will be able to reproduce in a partial gravity environment that’s much different than our planet’s. According to scientists at NASA’s Langley Research Center, “Humans may encounter reproductive challenges in gravity environments different than Earth’s, as gravitational forces may disrupt mammalian life cycle processes and actively shape genomes in ways that are inheritable.”
Experts believe that sending a mouse colony into lunar orbit to be observed by 600 cameras along with telerobotic animal care could give them a better idea on how humans could eventually reproduce on another planet. The experiment would be called MICEHAB (Multigenerational Independent Colony for Extraterrestrial Habitation, Autonomy and Behavior health) and it would study how spaceflight and partial gravity on at least three generations of mice would affect them, including their health as well as birth rates.
These experiments would be conducted around the late 2020s and would hopefully give scientists a better understanding for when humans to eventually make it to Mars, although human reproduction is much different than that of other mammals.
While all of these experiments are being done on mice and rats, the end question is if and how humans will be able to reproduce on Mars. James Nodler, who is a reproductive endocrinologist, asked, “Is our end point to see if we send up a man and a woman, and they have sex, can they have a baby? Or do we want to say, can we take a whole bunch of embryos, freeze them on Earth, send them to Mars and thaw them?”
Needless to say, it would be extremely difficult to study human reproduction in space without actually sending humans to another planet to do so. While experiments are being done, I think it’s safe to say that it will be many years before we see any baby Martians running around the Red Planet.