Ever since the first astronaut went to space almost 62 years ago, over 600 people have blasted out of Earth’s atmosphere. They lived and worked in space at different times, but until now, all of the humans in space, every single one of them, have been born on Earth. None has ever been born in space.
We could argue that Earth is a giant blue rock of matter held together by its own gravity in space and, due to some particular factors, supports life in this solar system, so technically, we are all born in space.
But, here we want to knock on a very particular door – the first off-Earth human baby. Is our biology suited enough for us to survive in outer space? If not, how will the effects of microgravity, radiation, moderated environment in space alter it?
Where is outer space?
Outer space begins about 62 miles above your head. At that point, the atmosphere is so thin that an object will have to be traveling at orbital speed to achieve lift. The astronauts on the ISS, which orbits Earth at an altitude of 230 miles, lie in outer space.
They are experiencing nearly 90% of the same gravity as we do. They are not experiencing zero gravity, but zero-G (G is the acceleration due to gravity), altering body functions.
Why is gravity so important?
Gravity’s limiting influence on us ensures that we develop correctly and healthfully. It is the environment we were born to live in. Thus, a baby conceived, gestated, grown, and delivered in outer space would raise the effect of weightlessness on the baby. We are talking about a diverse variety of biological functions over here.
The heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout our body. And this blood flows to different organs under the effect of gravity. But in space, due to weightlessness, the heart will not have to work as much as it did on Earth, making it weaker.
Fluids in my body?
For a pregnant mother in space, one thing we need to talk about is the vestibular system. Canals in the inner ear use the flow of fluids to determine movement, identify up and down, and balance. In a zero-G environment, fluids behave differently.
The fluid in the vestibular system just floats around and causes motion sickness, visual illusions, and disorientation, which we call space adaptation syndrome.
This can make the person vomit, sea-sick, and happens to about 50% of all astronauts in space. This can cause the baby to have confusion about acceleration which can affect its normal functioning.
Experiments on pregnant rats taken to space, with their babies conceived, have come with evidence of space rats struggling in directions back on Earth. Compared to their Earth counterparts, they perform better and process orientations better in motion sickness situations, but this was the only advantage.
Vestibular fluid is not the only fluid affected by the zero-G environment. All our body fluids are affected. On Earth, gravity pulls the fluids down, but in space, fluids are free to move evenly, which gives astronauts their characteristic legs and puffy faces.
This excessive fluid pressure in the face can compromise vision. Out of 27 astronauts studied after long space flights, nine had fluid expansion around the optic nerve, six had eyeballs flattened in the back by fluid pressure, and four had bulging optic nerves.
Fluid pressure in your head causes the errant message that your body must have too much fluid, which causes the body to produce less blood. Astronauts can lose up to 22% of their total blood volume in space, leading to weaker atrophied hearts.
What about space radiation?
Away from Earth’s protection, radiation from the Sun and the rest of the universe is incredibly dangerous and can affect our body functioning in unimaginable ways. Astronauts on the ISS receive as much radiation in a day as people on Earth receive in a year.
Mice exposed to levels of radiation expected during interplanetary journeys showed signs of different brain blood blow and larger plaques of the type found in Alzheimer’s patients. Space radiation will increase the probability of cancer, dysfunction of the heart and central nervous system, and eyesight problems.
How does my body’s composition get affected?
Psychologically, being away from Earth and the feeling of isolation can affect us physically. Scientists at the South Pole have compromised immune systems and produce fewer T cells.
As for the shape of the body, fully grown astronauts in space, no longer pressed down by Earth’s G force, experience spinal expansion by nearly up to 3%, causing skeletal deformation. This means that a 6-foot tall person can come to Earth and measure up to 6 feet 2 inches tall.
Without the usual and necessary stress, humans in space lose their bone density at the rate of about 1% per month, and in due time, we might lose 40-60% of total bone mass. Similarly, for muscles, as we don’t need to fight against gravity to float in space or do any work, our muscles can shrink at a rate of 5%, causing a total of 20% muscle loss over time.
Parallels have been drawn between the way a child’s skeleton would likely develop in space and diseases that cause weak and soft bones here on Earth, for example, rickets.
It is tenable to say that without proper precaution, care, and exercise that adult astronauts already take, children growing in space could look like a child having rickets. This is not because of the child having a vitamin D deficiency but due to the absence of the usual forces required for healthy bone development.
You can imagine a body with thinner legs, thin, weak muscles, poor eyesight, puffier face, and a higher to usual proclivity to dementia later.
Further, if after surviving all that, if we made a trip to Earth, We wouldn’t be able to walk or balance properly. We might also struggle to interact with people on Earth since we grew up crammed in a very small space on a space station during our entire lives.
Space Baby or no baby?
Humans as we know it have only been born on planet Earth. We are adapted to our environment, and if a child is born outside that environment, it will likely experience many problems.
A space baby born in space right now will not do quite well on Earth. However, given the right research and care, we have proven time and again that anything is possible. Who knows, maybe this becomes a possibility in the future!
Fun Fact: Citizenship in space
If you were born in space, you will be the first space baby ever in space, which would make you and your mother extremely famous, going down in history for all times. You may have a problem deciding your citizenship.
Initially, you will be given the citizenship of your parents. Still, if you were born aboard the ISS, you could lay claim to a European, Canadian, American, Russian or Japanese passport since these are the collection of countries that own the station.
Suggested Reading: Get out of my ‘Space’: Satellite Technology and the Race to Dominate Space