Since November 2011, there has been an uninterrupted presence of humans in space. There has always been at least one human in space, although since Yuri Gagarin (the first human to be launched into space), only about 500 people have gone up into the void.
So, we’ve pretty much established that we can survive for prolonged periods of time floating in outer space, but we haven’t even come close to comprehending the thought of a human being born in that environment. Astronauts are trained individuals at the heights of human fitness, backed up by a lot of research and experience to guide them, but a human infant has none of those qualifications, making it far more difficult to survive. Even if it survives, it’s highly improbable that it would be a healthy individual.
We know that the moon is 4,00,000 kilometers away from Earth’s surface, which is quite large, considering that the farthest a human has ever been from Earth is the moon. The International Space Station (ISS) orbits the Earth in a geostationary orbit at a height of about 400 kilometers, which is just 0.1% of the distance from the moon. However, since astronauts in the ISS do experience weightlessness, I’ll limit the discussion to a baby being born there. Apart from this, the ISS is currently the most suitable habitat that could support gestation and child-rearing, which is not saying much, because it’s still in SPACE!
Major Difference in the Environment: Gravity
It is a common misconception that astronauts onboard the ISS experience ‘Zero Gravity’. What they do experience is weightlessness, which is very different than Zero Gravity. Just because it is 400 kilometers above the Earth’s surface doesn’t mean that it isn’t affected by Earth’s gravity. The gravitational force is nearly the same up there, almost 90% of what it is down on Earth. In other words, if you were to walk on a building 400 kilometers high, you’d feel pretty much the same amount of gravity as you do right now.
The reason why astronauts seem to be floating is because the ISS revolves around the Earth at incredible speeds of 8 km/s – faster than a speeding bullet! This speed is so fast that the ISS just curves around over the Earth’s surface. At such speeds, the force of gravity it experiences is completely balanced out by the force at which it is being thrown out. Essentially, the astronauts are in a constant state of free fall while inside the ISS. This is currently the simplest and only possible way to simulate Zero Gravity, until we figure out a way to harness and implement artificial gravity.
Before being Born
Conceiving a baby in space is more difficult than you might think. Firstly, the absence of gravity makes it very uncomfortable for people to be intimate, and even if there is successful implantation, the problems don’t end there. Secondly, human sperm cells need gravity for migration to the egg, which makes it even more difficult for the egg to be fertilized in space. Thirdly, assuming that the fertilization is successful, it is more difficult for the embryo to mature into a baby without the proper flow of fluids from the mother’s body to the embryo.
Motion Sickness is a major problem for the healthy development of an infant. In the Zero-G environment, the fluids in our inner ear that are responsible for the perception of balance in our body just float around, causing disorientation. For children born in space, this would be especially uncomfortable when they do actually come back to Earth and experience gravity. Mice born in space have already been studied and it was observed that they had fewer problems in accustoming to weightlessness, although they had a very hard time coming to terms with orientation and balance.
Cosmetically, space-born babies would look a bit different. All of the fluids in our bodies are pulled downwards due to gravity, which is not possible in space. The individuals born there would develop bloated bodies and puffy faces. Since the heart doesn’t have to work against gravity in space, it would atrophy and we would lose blood content, making us paler and weaker. Due to increased blood pressure in our upper bodies, our eyes would bulge and our brains would lose efficiency.
Radiation from the Sun, if not shielded against by our Earth’s Ozone layer, would have disastrous results. Mice exposed to radiation levels that can be expected during prolonged stays at the ISS have shown an increased probability of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Astronauts on the ISS have experienced a degradation of their Immune System and fewer White Blood Cells. We haven’t yet figured out a way to shield ourselves against such large amounts of radiation for such extended periods of time.
Skeletal and Muscular deformities are one of the more obvious effects of Zero-G. Astronauts have experienced expansion in their spinal cords, which causes an increase in their height. Some might even grow by about 3% by the time they come back. Without the usual and necessary stress, bones in space atrophy. If the astronauts do not follow a strict exercising regime, they will lose muscle and bone mass. This is especially problematic for children, who are at a higher risk of suffering from rickets and having irregularly shaped skeletons.
Psychologically, being away from civilization and a complete lack of company would induce depression. The degradation of mental health is known to be responsible for health issues.
So, there you go, there are many reasons to be skeptical about the possibility of a baby being born as a healthy individual while in space. On the other hand, imagine how hard it would be for that kid who is physically deformed, mentally depressed, vertigo-stricken and mentally challenged. It would be highly irresponsible for us to subject someone to such torture, even for the advancement of science. Therefore, the answer to the question of whether babies can be born in space can only be answered in a hypothetical scenario. It is sad and discouraging, but don’t bother crying… in space, tears don’t fall and no one can hear you anyway.