Can a human give birth in space? (Intermediate)

Is it possible to give birth in space? What would be required to do this other than general hospital tools? Would there be a problem because of the lack of gravity?

NASA funds research programs devoted to studying a variety of aspects of living in space including the possibility of growing plants to the physical effects on the human body in a zero-gravity environment. These experiments are still in their very early stages since space travel itself is relatively new.

A woman has yet to give birth on a shuttle or in the Space Station nor has a pregnant woman even traveled in space. However, a few studies have sent pregnant rats into space so the development of the (Earth-born) babies could be investigated.

In 1983 the Soviet Union launched a satellite with a pregnant rat on board and found the trip was harder on the mother than on the fetuses. Once the babies were born upon returning to Earth they were only slightly thinner and weaker than their Earth-based counterparts and lagged behind a bit in their mental development although they eventually caught up. The mother lost a quarter of her body weight and had notable changes in her hormonal and endocrine systems.

More recently in 2001 biologists Jeffrey Alberts of Indiana University and April Ronca of the NASA Ames Research Center sent 20 pregnant rats into space to determine some of the effects the zero-gravity environment had on the fetuses. The rats were sent in the middle of their pregnancies when the vestibular systems were beginning to develop in the fetuses. (The vestibular system in humans is a network of channels and sacs of fluid in the inner ear that regulates balance.) The experiment was meant to vaguely mimic research done in the 1960's on humans that determined a certain amount of light and sound stimuli were necessary during crucial periods of pregnancy to develop vision and hearing in the baby.

The mothers and babies fared much better in this experiment than in the 1983 study. The mothers gave birth to normal-sized babies and were able to lactate and care for them normally. Even after the muscle mass lost due to the lack of gravity the labor contractions did not pose a problem for the mothers. There were noticeable effects on the vestibular systems of the space-based rat infants, however. The Earth-based babies were able to immediately right themselves upon being turned on their backs in water. The space-based babies had more trouble; some had to make a few attempts before achieving success and others were unable to do it at all. After five days of the same test though all the babies were able to roll over. The researchers also determined that the vestibular organs detecting angular changes were actually more advanced in the space-based babies, probably because their mothers were forced to roll around a lot on the shuttle due to the lack of gravity.

The lack of gravity is not the only issue making space births difficult. Here on Earth our atmosphere blocks harmful radiation from reaching us, but people traveling in space do not have the same protection.

We are still a long way from determining whether a human can give birth in space but the findings so far seem promising. No doubt the first space-mom will have to be very healthy and in great shape. 

Page last updated on June 25, 2015.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt

Sabrina Stierwalt

Sabrina was a graduate student at Cornell until 2009 when she moved to Los Angeles to become a researcher at Caltech. She now studies galaxy mergers at the University of Virginia and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville. You can also find her answering science questions in her weekly podcast as Everyday Einstein.

 Twitter: @galaxygirlguru
 Website: www.astro.virginia.edu/~srs5vn

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