Human colonies outside Earth will not be viable without reproduction in space, says a Dutch businessman, who is working to achieve fertilization and, eventually, the birth of people in a partial gravity environment.
“If we want to have human colonies (…) outside of Earth and if we want them to be truly independent, we have to face the challenge of reproduction”, estimates Egbert Edelbroek, responsible for the pioneering company Spaceborn United.
Humanity must “transform into a multiplanetary species”, says the businessman to AFP, convinced that, throughout his life, he will see the birth of a human being conceived in space.
Faced with the difficulties of having sexual relations in space, starting with the lack of gravity that would separate the couple, Spaceborn United works first on the conception of an embryo.
For ethical reasons, the company first pursues reproduction in mice before sending human sperm and eggs into space. To do this, he created a disc that mixes these cells.
It’s like a space station for cells, summarizes Aqeel Shamsul, advisor to the British society Frontier Space Technologies, which collaborates with Spaceborn on the project.
The embryo will be cryogenically frozen to suspend its development and ensure a safe return in difficult conditions, with shocks and gravitational forces.
The launch with mouse cells is scheduled for the end of next year. It will be necessary to wait at least “five or six years” for the first launch that seeks to produce a human embryo, said Edelbroek.
This would just be a small first step. An ethical leap is still needed until an embryo is reimplanted into a human and the first baby conceived in space is born.
“It’s a delicate subject. In the end, we expose vulnerable human cells, human embryos, to the dangers of space (…) for which embryos were not designed”, recognizes Edelbroek.
The sensitivity of these issues is one of the reasons why research into space reproduction has generally been entrusted to private companies, rather than to NASA, explains the businessman.
Edelbroek, who says he believes his company is the only one seeking to develop a human embryo in space, hopes that humanity will someday achieve a natural birth in space, but admits that the road is long.
Bodily fluids, pushed downward due to Earth’s gravity, can be carried upward in a low-gravity environment, which creates different challenges.
If adult bodies can manage some differences, a fully growing fetus is more vulnerable.
“So, first you have to create the perfect environment,” he says.
The current development of space tourism is another element to consider: some of these new travelers may be interested in becoming the first to conceive in space, says the businessman, who also draws attention to the risks.
Spaceborn’s research, which replicates the in vitro fertilization process in space, also helps people conceive on Earth, Edelbroek said.
When he began his adventure, he believed that, within a few years, it would be possible to conceive babies in space. But the magnitude of the challenges forced him to readjust his expectations. “We’ve gone from crazy ambitious to just really ambitious,” he acknowledged.
This 48-year-old man remains convinced that he will see a baby born in space. “I hope to make it to at least a hundred years. That would give us enough decades to do this.”