Can Women Get Pregnant in Space?

children in space
In the future humans won't be born only on Earth, but there are still hazards to pregnancy and childrearing off-planet that need to be countered. Tim Flach, Getty Images, The Image Bank

As humans prepare to live and work in space, mission planners are finding answers to a number of questions about long-term space residency. One of the most perplexing is "Can women get pregnant in space?" It's a fair one to ask, since the future of humans in space depends on our ability to reproduce out there.

Is Pregnancy Possible in Space?

The technical answer is: yes, it's possible to become pregnant in space.

Of course, a woman and her partner need to be able to actually have sex in space. Additionally, both she and her partner must be fertile. However, there are significant other hurdles that stand in the way of remaining pregnant once fertilization takes place.

Barriers to Child-bearing in Space

The primary problems with becoming and remaining pregnant in space are radiation and low-gravity environments. Let's talk about radiation first. 

Radiation can affect a man's sperm count, and it can harm a developing fetus. This is true here on Earth, too, as anyone who has taken a medical x-ray or who works in a high-radiation environment can tell you. It's why both men and women are usually supplied with protective aprons when they get x-rays or other diagnostic work. The idea is to keep stray radiation from interfering with egg and sperm production. With lower sperm counts or damaged ova, the likelihood of a successful pregnancy is affected.

 

Let's say that conception happens. The radiation environment in space (or on the Moon or Mars) is severe enough that it would prevent cells in the fetus from replicating, and the pregnancy would end. 

In addition to the high radiation, astronauts live and work in very low-gravity environments. The exact effects are still being studied in detail on lab animals (such as rats).

However, it's very clear that a gravity environment is needed for proper bone development and growth.

This is why astronauts have to exercise in space regularly in order to prevent muscle atrophy and loss of bone mass. It is also because of this that astronauts that return to Earth after long stays in space (like aboard the International Space Station) can require re-acclimation to Earth's gravity environment.

Overcoming the Radiation Problem

If people are to venture out into space on a more permanent basis (like extended trips to Mars) radiation hazards need to be minimized. But how?

Astronauts taking extended trips into space, like the proposed multi-year jaunts to Mars, would be exposed to much higher levels of radiation than astronauts have ever faced before. Current space ship designs can not provide the necessary shielding to provide the needed protection to avoid development of cancers and radiation sickness.

And it is not just a problem while traveling to other planets. Due to the thin atmosphere and weak magnetic field of Mars, the astronauts would still be exposed to harmful radiation on the surface of the red planet.

So if permanent residencies are ever going to exist on Mars, like those proposed in the Hundred-year Starship, then better shielding technology would have to be developed.

Since NASA is already thinking of solutions to these problems, it's likely that we will one day overcome the radiation problem.

Overcoming the Gravity Problem

As it turns out, the problem of a lower gravity environment may be more difficult to overcome if humans are to successfully reproduce in space. Life in low gravity affects a number of body systems, including muscular development and eyesight. So, it may be necessary to supply an artificial gravity environment in space to mimic what humans evolved to expect here on Earth.

There are some spacecraft designs in the pipeline, like the Nautilus-X, that employ "artificial gravity" designs - specifically centrifuges - that would allow for at least a partial gravity environment on part of the ship.

The problem with such designs is that they can't yet replicate a full gravity environment, and even then occupants would be constrained to one part of the ship.

This would be difficult to manage.

Further exacerbating the problem is fact that the spacecraft needs to land. So what do you do once on the ground?

Ultimately, I believe the long-term solution to the problem is the development of anti-gravity technology. Such devices are still a long way off, partially because we still don't fully grasp the nature of gravity, or how gravity "information" is exchanged and manipulated.

However, if we could somehow manipulate gravity then it would create an environment where a woman could carry a fetus to term. Overcoming these obstacles is still a long way off. In the meantime, humans going to space currently are very likely using birth control, and if they are having sex, it's a well-kept secret. There are no known pregnancies in space. 

Nonetheless, humans will have to face a future that includes space-born and Mars- or Moon-born children. These people will be perfectly adapted to their homes, and oddly enough—the Earth environment will be "alien" to them. It will certainly be a very brave and interesting new world. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.