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Earth’s First Space Gynaecologist Reveals How Humans Will Reproduce in the Future

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A baby is resting on a large chalkboard, surrounded by planets and an astronaut’s glass. Scientists are skeptical that humanity will ever be able to bear kids in space safely.

Future human races may dwell on the Moon, Mars, or, if certain people get their way, Venus. But, once we’re up there, how will we reproduce and survive? How do our reproductive systems fare? Is it even feasible to have babies in space?

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To discover out, we chatted with Dr Varsha Jain of the University of Edinburgh’s space gynaecologist (yep, you read that correctly) about women in space and reproductive health.

You are a gynaecologist in space. What exactly does that mean?

A space gynaecologist is someone who is interested in both space medicine (understanding how astronauts are impacted by the space environment) and gynaecology (looking after women’s health). It’s a term I was given a few years ago, but it seems to have remained with me – and I like it!

As far as I know, I am the first one to have received it. I believe it derives from my desire to adopt an intellectual approach to women’s health in relation to astronaut health. That’s something I’ve been doing for nearly 10 years.

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We’ve made great strides for women in space, but the tale starts with some fairly mind-boggling falsehoods. Could you perhaps tell us about some of them?

It was these beliefs that resulted in a 20-year gap between the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova) and the first American woman in orbit (Sally Ride).

The reason for this is that no one understood what would happen to women’s periods when they ventured into space at the time. There was much anxiety that the blood might flow within the body instead of out, a condition known as retrograde menstruation.

There was also a lot of discussion about how many menstruation products astronauts would require. The astronauts were famously questioned if they needed 200 tampons every menstrual cycle. Two hundred tampons is clearly too many for the majority of the ladies I see in clinic!

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Has the perception of women in space changed?

It’s vastly better. I believe a large part of this is due to NASA’s approach toward women’s health: they want to talk about women’s health, and they want it to be open-access and evidence-based. They favor the concept of preserving eggs before a female astronaut flies into space, for example.

What happens to our reproductive systems as we go into space?

Before I respond, it’s crucial to note that astronauts are in orbit to do their duties, not to participate in research. We must understand that when astronauts provide us with knowledge and data, they are doing it voluntarily.

It’s also a fairly tiny pool for us academics to deal with: around 650 people from the United States and Europe have gone into space. Only around 10% or 11% of those are female, which is not typical of the Earth’s population.

However, we do know that human reproductive health is driven by hormones, and the hormone cycles do not appear to vary in space. That implies menstruation if there isn’t a pregnancy – and, ideally, a normal pregnancy if there was a conception.

So it is feasible to conceive, become pregnant, and give birth in space. Is that correct?

Ovulation is obviously feasible because we know women can have their periods in space. This indicates that the uterine lining has expanded and is prepared for pregnancy. As a result, technically, fertilization might occur as well.

It’s unclear whether that’s even doable. I’m not privy to such information, assuming such study is even being place.

Right now, the focus is on how to keep astronauts healthy. That, rather than determining if we can have babies in space, should be our top focus, in my opinion.

Space effects on pregnancy have been explored in animal models, but not in human models. Pregnancies in animals can persist and birth because rodent pups have been born in space.

So, in terms of reproductive health, these things may be achievable, but are we there yet? We may not be present to obtain the specific answers we want. But, as far as hypotheticals go, they may happen.

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What do we know about the dangers of spaceflight on women’s bodies and pregnancies?

Because of the possible influence on the fetus, a lady on Earth would be advised not to get an X-ray. On a space trip, however, we don’t know how background radiation would affect things – and we don’t want to harm an unborn kid.

Radiation has an effect on our genetic composition, which is the blueprint that determines who we are. When there is an overabundance of radiation, it might modify the coding and induce mutations. The genetic coding of a fetus is extremely vulnerable to radiation and easily damaged. This may result in disparities in how the child develops.

Of course, when comparing an X-ray to a space voyage, a six-month expedition is preferable than a single X-ray. However, if we’re talking about a pregnancy in space, it’s more likely in the context of a lengthier journey to the Moon or Mars, when the individual will stay there for an extended amount of time.

Plus, we have to account for transit time, so getting to Mars will take about a year. When we sum it all together, there’s a lot of radiation. Furthermore, we have no understanding how this type of radiation might impact an unborn kid. That is what makes it hazardous.

Are we safe if we can get beyond the radiation?

When you go into space and return, your body experiences a significant gravitational stress. As a doctor, I would never put a pregnant lady on a fighter jet or a roller coaster, for example, because of the elevated loads. Gravitational load is the sensation in the pit of your stomach that you’re falling incredibly rapidly. As a pregnant woman, you want to avoid situations like these.

The weightlessness of the space environment has another influence; we already know that astronauts lose bone and muscle when they travel into space.

However, there is an effect on the blood and cardiac systems within the body. Even while the reproductive system does not alter in space, it does require all of the other systems to function.

When a woman becomes pregnant, she need an adequate blood flow to ensure that nutrients reach the fetus. However, in space, your total blood volume is halved. So, will the infant get enough nutrition? There are several unknowns.

Given the enormous gaps in our knowledge, how practical are ambitions to establish extraterrestrial human colonies?

Never say never, right? The reason why space exploration has gotten so far is because of human curiosity. So, at some point, although I’m not sure if it will be in my lifetime, I believe we will have human settlements on other planets or on the Moon.

That being said, I believe that much more study is required to guarantee that humans who go to other planets are safe and that we are not endangering anyone.

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What influence may space tourism have on what we know and don’t know? Or, to put it another way, might rambunctious space travelers be the first to conceive in space – and then inform us about their, ahem, discoveries?

When compared to astronauts, people of the general population are unlikely to be in top physical condition. And who knows if, depending on their age, this will affect their fertility.

But, as a researcher, it’s an intriguing question: might we use this chance with spaceflight tourism to find some answers to these questions? And, if humans are going to do what humans do, might we see if that offers us some information that the space agencies may not be authorized to look into? It’s a fantastic opportunity.

Are individuals, scientists, and even governments competing to have children in space in order to be the first to land on a new space route?

Reproductive health in space may appear enticing since it may entail having a baby in space.

As far as making headlines goes, the first baby in space will be a huge thing. But there’s a lot of money required to get there, and I’m not convinced reproductive health will receive that much.

I believe that reproductive health in general is understudied on Earth; it is frequently overlooked and neglected.

If we’re going to look into this, we should also finance reproductive health on Earth and attempt to figure out what’s going on in female bodies. We need to know what’s ‘normal’ in order to predict what will change in the space environment.

Concerning our expert

Dr. Varsha Jain is a University of Edinburgh space gynaecologist. Her work has appeared in the journals npj Microgravity, International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, and Developmental Cell.

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I'm Michael, a young enthusiast with an insatiable curiosity for the mysteries of science and technology. As a passionate explorer of knowledge, I envisioned a platform that could not only keep us all informed about the latest breakthroughs but also inspire us to marvel at the wonders that surround us.
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