SpaceBorn has intentions to achieve the first conception and birth in space.
Does humanity need a plan B?
Well, just in case the answer to this question is yes, a Dutch entrepreneur decided to explore the ability to reproduce in space.
Egbert Edelbroek heads the pioneering company SpaceBorn United, focusing on reproduction and potential births in the partial gravity environment of Mars.
It’s a process that comes with huge challenges.
While the prospect of the first sexual encounters in space may seem utopian, the ambitious Dutchman is confident that he will witness a human conceived and born in space during his lifetime.
“If you want human colonies (…) beyond Earth, and if you genuinely want them to be independent, you also need to address the challenge of reproduction,” Edelbroek said.
Humanity must, therefore, “become a multiplanetary species,” he told AFP.
Faced with colossal challenges of potential sexual encounters in space, the primary hurdle being the lack of gravity that would separate couples, SpaceBorn United primarily aims to achieve conceiving an embryo in space.
For ethical reasons, the company is initially working on reproducing mice before considering sending human sperm and eggs far from Earth. To facilitate this, they have developed a disc that mixes the cells.
“It’s like a space station for your cells,” said Aqeel Shamsul, CEO of the British company Frontier Space Technologies, collaborating on the project.
The embryo will then be cryogenically frozen to halt its development, ensuring a safe return under challenging conditions, including vibrations and gravitational forces.
A launch with mouse cells is planned for the end of next year, with the first launch aiming to produce a human embryo expected to take “five or six years,” according to Edelbroek.
However, this is just a small step, and a giant leap is required on an ethical level before such an embryo can be implanted in a woman, leading to the birth of the first child conceived in space.
“It’s a delicate subject. Ultimately, you expose vulnerable human cells, human embryos, to the dangers of space (…) for which embryos were never designed,” said Edelbroek.
The sensitivity of these issues is one reason why research on space reproduction has generally been entrusted to private companies rather than NASA, he explained.
Edelbroek, who believes his company is the only one seeking to develop a human embryo in space, hopes natural birth in space will one day be achieved – admitting that the road is “long.”
Bodily fluids, pulled downward on Earth, would be drawn upward in a low-gravity environment, presenting several challenges.
While adult bodies can handle certain differences, a growing fetus is “more vulnerable.” “So you must first create the perfect environment,” he said.
The current development of space tourism is also a factor to consider: a new kind of traveller might want to be the first to conceive in space, said the entrepreneur who raises awareness in the sector about the risks.
Spaceborn’s research, replicating the in vitro fertilisation process in space, also aids people in conceiving on Earth, according to him.
He initially hoped that a baby could be conceived in space within a few years, but the magnitude of the challenges forced him to temper his ambitions.
“We went from wildly ambitious to just very ambitious,” he said.
However, the 48-year-old remains convinced that a baby will be born in space during his lifetime.
“I expect to reach at least 100 years. So, that should give us enough decades to achieve it.”