“Most of the pregnant women I know feel great comfort in knowing that they have access to medical help if there’s an issue during a delivery—or prior to a delivery, or after a delivery,” says Virginia Wotring, a professor of space medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “Putting people in a situation where they are many, many, many miles away from medical help does not seem to be advisable.”
Let’s set aside, for a moment, the question of how SpaceLife will time labor contractions with a rocket launch to get their participant into space just in time for delivery. Astronauts usually experience three times the force of gravity during the ascent to orbit. In the case of a botched launch and emergency landing, that force triples. It’s unclear what effect such extreme pressure could have on a pregnant person.
There’s little in the literature to guide us on what may transpire in orbit. Experiments on reproduction have been conducted in space, but they have been limited to mice, fish, lizards, and invertebrates. In the 1990s, pregnant rats gave birth after a week on a U.S. space-shuttle mission. Each rat pup was born with an underdeveloped vestibular system, the inner-ear structure that allows mammals to balance and orient themselves. As scientists suspected, the absence of gravity had thrown the pups off-kilter. The animals’ sense of balance recovered not long after birth, but the lesson was clear: Animal infants need gravity.
Imagine childbirth without it. The expectant woman would be unable to take walks to ease the pain of labor, to take advantage of gravity’s downward tug as she pushed. The thought of administering an epidural seems terrifying; the anesthesiologist would have to make sure her patient didn’t float away as she carefully weaved a needle toward the spinal cord. Bodily fluids would clump into blobs and glide through the capsule.
When the time came, the baby’s first breaths would suck in the air of a sealed metal box, composed of oxygen made by complex artificial systems, not plant life. “A baby might be breathing a gas mixture that is different from Earth air,” Wotring said. “Adult humans seem to handle it just fine, but if you’re using your lungs for the very first time, would it make a difference? I don’t know.”
After the delivery is over, mom and baby would have to survive the descent back to Earth. For current astronauts, that involves a bone-rattling free fall through the atmosphere, followed by a parachute landing in the Kazakh desert. On the ground, the team would be faced with yet another unusual question: Where do you get a birth certificate for someone born in space?
Read: A birth certificate is a person’s first possession
The list of unknowns goes on and on. SpaceLife Origin seems like an unusual player in such a perilous endeavor. The top three employees named on the company’s website are business executives with no experience in medicine or spaceflight, including Edelbroek, whose biography describes him as a “serial entrepreneur.” Five advisers are listed, two of them women. (Edelbroek says the company is working with dozens more, but declined to name them.) Edelbroek says his interest stems in part from his experience as a sperm donor, which led him to father several children and learn about in vitro fertilization techniques. Another of SpaceLife Origin’s missions involves launching sperm and egg cells into space to form an embryo and returning it to Earth for implantation.