Numerous space exploration initiatives on record align with the ambition favoring humanity’s sustained presence in space. But so far, the conversations about reproductive biology and childbearing have been missing from discussions concerning long-duration spaceflight. These are issues that aren’t openly discussed or widely researched compared to the myriad physical and psychological changes to the human body. Yet, the questions about human reproduction, conception, pregnancy, fetal development, birth, child care, and development in the extremes of space will become more salient over time. How will we reproduce and sustain new generations in space?
I’m interested in these topics because they diverge from the mainstream industry coverage, so I returned to NASA’s Micro-11 mission, launched to the International Space Station in April 2018, which sent six frozen human sperm and bull sperm samples. Managed by the Ames Research Center, the experiment was designed by Joseph S. Tash, emeritus professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City to study sperm activation and motility — the sperm’s spontaneous motion under the conditions of microgravity and increased levels of radiation in space. Any delays or problems with motility could hinder egg fertilization, a prerequisite for sexual reproduction. BioServe Space Technologies, a University of Colorado Boulder research institute, developed Micro-11’s hardware. Per the experiment’s specifications, researchers used the data from the bull sperm for quality control to differentiate the changes in both species.