In this week that saw the world celebrate International Women's Day, the InnovaSpace team welcome news about the work of Dr Lucia Hartmann & Jasmin Mittag, with a new concept for the shape of future space travel and a desire to promote equality - an ethos we fully support!
The "Vulva Spaceship"
The first spacecraft in a V-shape is not only a symbol for more diversity in space, but also state-of-the-art and thus more sustainable. The “Vulva Spaceship” designed by “WBF Aeronautics” represents inclusivity, varying from the traditional shapes. Thus, the project adds another dimension to the representation of humanity in space and is communicating to the world that anyone has a place in the universe, regardless of physical characteristics.
Dr. Lucia Hartmann, Head of “WBF Aeronautics” and inventor of the “Vulva Spaceship” reports from her research: “The spaceship’s shape is surprisingly aerodynamic, creating way less drag when the vehicle punches through the Earth’s atmosphere. Due to this optimized V-shape, it guarantees maximum fuel efficiency with an exterior made of reinforced carbon which enables it to withstand the most extreme temperatures.” “WBF Aeronautics” wants to inspire space travel to be open to modern forms and to realise equal opportunities across the universe.
The Project "WBF Aeronautics"
“WBF Aeronautics” is a collaboration between Dr. Lucia Hartmann and her team and “Wer braucht Feminismus?” (WBF). Dr. Lucia Hartmann started her research work about spaceships and discovered that a spaceship varying from traditional shapes, would be more aerodynamic and create less drag, thus being more sustainable.
She reached out to us for the purpose of a collaboration and for us to do the media work as there is much more to it than just the scientific aspect. On the one hand, the topic is sensitive, but on the other hand, it also holds great opportunities. The symbol of a Spaceship in a V-shape represents more diversity in space. The project adds another dimension to the representation of humanity in space.
We believe that equality even has a place in space. It’s time for new symbols in the universe.
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Author: Elias de Andrade Jr.
Director, Institute of Space Commerce, Austin, Texas, USA
The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is scheduled to complete its first space station in the next two years. With its Tiangong, Chinese Space Station (CSS), China has also raised many questions on how its capabilities are comparable and competitive with the International Space Station (ISS) also due to be decommissioned by 2024. The space race is on, and the CSS is a landmark of independent human flight capability that is just the beginning for China.
In the past ten years of research and development of space technology, China has enjoyed various opportunities to be a superpower in outer space. Steady economic growth rate and increase of its GPD enabling government funding are some of them. It has also developed its own national space technology with spacecraft launching capabilities, and its space activities are in accordance with the current international legal framework.
On October 16, 2021, three Chinese Astronauts in the Shenzhou mission entered the Tiangong for a six month stay, its longest mission in history. China has launched 12 spacecraft, plus the Tiangong 1, and the Tiangong 2 Space Laboratory. The country has trained and sent 11 astronauts to outer space 14 times and returned them safely to Earth. The design life expectancy of the 5-module station is 10 years with possibility of extension.
Biomedical engineer, with a focus on emerging technologies and their role in the changing world of healthcare. He explores how they will impact the care delivered to patients, but is also equally interested in how they could benefit the future of long-term spaceflight. He believes both questions are opportunities for collaboration and inspiration!
How would you deal with physical and mental health needs on a three-year round-trip to Mars? Those are questions I often think about and I would like to take you on a tour of solutions already out here on Earth, that might benefit those first astronauts to the Red Planet.
Last week SpaceX performed another successful test of its Starship. The Starship is designed to eventually bring as many as a 100 people to Mars per flight.
We’ve seen many recent plans for human spaceflight, both commercial and non-commercial and it’s about right to say that humankind will go on more and longer duration space missions. A lot of engineering research is going into the development of rockets and other technological advancement, but just as important as getting there, will be getting there alive and healthy!
That’s not a trivial problem: Especially when we will go on deep space missions to Mars and beyond we will run into some basic limitations. There will be communication delays, we will have limited medical equipment on board due to limitations in mass, volume and electricity, and limited medical skills. A doctor can come along, but the doctor can also become sick, and of course, emergency evacuation to Earth will no longer be an option.
Therefore, we will need a sense of medical autonomy for those astronauts on the go. We will send the most healthy human beings on such a mission, but a 3-year trip is a long time to stay healthy in the extreme environment of outer space. If not physical problems, then also psychological issues can become a risk to the success of the mission, which the crew themselves will need to deal with. In this quest for medical autonomy, I argue, we can learn from trends in healthcare and healthcare innovation on Earth, so let’s shortly take a trip back to Earth.
In this short overview of the history of healthcare, a lot has happened since Hippocrates worked out the oath for medical professionals. None of the developments shown however, were as fundamental as the last one, the advent of digital health technologies. By becoming digital, solutions for healthcare have become smaller, faster, cheaper and in many cases, smarter. Solutions are leveraging Artificial Intelligence, Virtual and Augmented Reality, blockchain, voice recognition and 3D printing. These are just some of the technologies that are impacting healthcare.
As a result of this impact, we see various shifts in healthcare, going from a reactive system to more preventive care and from a one-size-fits-all-healthcare to precision medicine. Most importantly, however, you see a shift in power. The relationship between the doctor and his or her patient is changing from a more dependent relationship, into a partnership, in which the patient is empowered with technology, to take care of his/her own health or medical issues.
In other words, terrestrial patients are becoming more autonomous when it comes down to their health and care. It is this change, that is also needed for astronauts on their way to Mars. A different relationship between astronauts and their doctors in mission control is needed and this can be achieved, by leveraging new health technologies.
Here are 3 terrestrial examples:
Director of Space Training Operations, Blue Abyss; European Space Agency (Retd); Chinese Academy of Sciences (Retd); InnovaSpace Advisory Board Member
Congratulations to Editor Vladimir Pletser and all the authors who contributed to this interesting open-access book entitled Preparations of Space Experiments, which was published this week. Spend a few minutes watching Vladimir as he summarises the contents of each chapter, written by world-leading researchers who have designed and prepared science experiments on microgravity platforms, including aircraft parabolic flights, in preparation for subsequent spaceflight.
Prof. K Ganapathy
InnovaSpace Advisory Board member, Past President Telemedicine Society of India, Former Secretary/Past President Neurological Society of India & Indian Society for Stereotactic & Functional Neurosurgery, Emeritus Professor Tamilnadu Dr MGR Medical University, Former Adjunct Professor IIT Madras & Anna University Madras, Founder Director, Apollo Telemedicine Networking Foundation & Apollo Tele Health.
January 22-24th 2020 saw the taking place of an international Symposium on Human Spaceflight, in Bengaluru, India. The event, jointly organised by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) and Astronautical Society of India (ASI), under the theme of ‘Human Space Flight and Exploration – Present Challenges and Future Trends’, saw the coming together of more than 500 national and international delegates, all experts in the field of human spaceflight related technologies, from space agencies, astronauts, representatives of International space industries and academic institutes, young professionals and students.
The Symposium was inaugurated on the 22nd January 2020 by Prof. K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, in the presence of Dr K Sivan, Chairman of ISRO, and the Honourable Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi conveyed a special message to the symposium participants. The PM highlighted that the benefits of India’s Space programme should be shared with the entire world, in line with India’s wisdom of "Vasudaiva Kutumbakam" - which in Sanskrit means the World is one family.
Shri P Kunhikrishnan, Director, URSC and Chairman of the Local Organising Committee, welcomed the participants. Dr B N Suresh, Honorary Distinguished Professor, ISRO and Dr Jean Marc Astorg, Director Launch Vehicle Directorate, CNES, France, the International Programme Committee Co-Chairs addressed the gathering.
The ‘Heads of Space Agencies Panel’ was composed of the Space Agency chiefs from India and Romania, and the heads of the Human Spaceflight Programmes of CNES (France), NASA (USA), JAXA (Japan), ASI (Italy), and ROSCOSMOS (Russia). The agency heads made deliberations on the progress and future plans of the respective Space Agencies under the changing landscape and economics of human spaceflight and deep space exploration. Mr Jean-Yves Le Gall, President of CNES addressed the gathering on January 24, 2020 on the Indo–French partnership in human spaceflight.
Another significant event in the Symposium was the ‘Astronaut Panel’ held on January 23, 2020 with the participation of five astronauts from France, Germany, Russia, USA and UAE, with the panel being moderated by Air Commodore (Retd) Mr Ravish Malhotra. The astronauts presented their thoughts on spaceflight and the technical, physiological and psychological challenges of humans during spaceflight.
The Symposium received a good response from the Industry, and an exclusive industry panel was also organised providing an opportunity for Indian and foreign space industry leaders to discuss their perspectives on human spaceflight and exploration.
A total of 19 invited and plenary lectures were delivered by eminent experts in the Human spaceflight area, from USA, Russia, France, Japan, Italy, Germany and the UAE. Around 100 technical papers were presented by the delegates from different countries under 5 major topics, namely, Challenges, Enabling Technologies, Ground Systems, Scientific and Societal Relevance, Policy Aspects and Economics of human spaceflight. In addition, an exclusive student session was held (January 23, 2020) to give a special focus on the younger generation. Sixty students from premium academic institutions across the country participated in the session and 10 selected papers were presented by students.
An exhibition of technologies and products related to Human Spaceflight, including space food, was organised as part of the symposium. A full-size model of a Crew Module, scaled models of the Crew Escape System, and the space station concept were showcased. The three-day Symposium has enabled an exchange of information between the delegates on the latest trends in human spaceflight exploration.
Also on show at the symposium was the Vyommitra 'space robot', a half-humanoid being made to accompany astronauts on the #Gaganyaan mission, and able to monitor biological parameters and perform life support operations. The robot will also be able to converse with the astronauts, recognise them and respond to their queries, as well as respond to commands from the control centre in Bengaluru and give feedback to the scientists who will be monitoring from Earth.
1 - https://www.isro.gov.in/update/24-jan-2020/iaa-isro-asi-symposium-human-space-flight-and-exploration-was-organised-bangalore
2 - https://www.news18.com/news/tech/isros-vyom-mitra-humanoid-robot-set-for-an-unmanned-trip-into-space-watch-video-2469801.html
InnovaSpace Advisory Board Member Prof K. Ganapathy presented a paper at the symposium on “Neurological Changes in Outer Space”. It was the only paper presented by a medical doctor and served to raise the awareness of leading space scientists, engineers and technologists to the significance of giving equal importance to the health of the Vyomanauts on board the spacecraft.
Author: Adriana Bos-Mikich PhD
Department of Morphological Sciences, ICBS, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
The last few decades have seen remarkable progress in our ability to safely launch manned craft into the black abyss of space, boosted in recent years by the growing involvement of commercial space enterprise, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. With it has come a rising desire to work towards the establishment of longer-term human settlements in orbiting space stations and on the Moon and Mars. Recent experiments, although methodologically limited, have demonstrated that frozen human sperm samples are not affected by the microgravity conditions encountered in spaceflight, which is an important and positive finding.
However, life in space is not confronted by microgravity alone, but is also faced with high radiation levels, which may well represent a relevant source of concern when dealing with human reproduction beyond Earth. Cryopreserved sperm and oocyte samples stored in outer space under these two hostile conditions must survive and maintain viability long enough to generate viable embryos, if they are eventually to result in healthy babies born aboard space stations. The putative effects of long-term storage of human gametes and embryos under Earth atmospheric conditions have already been investigated. Data from early clinical and experimental studies have shown that background radiation has no deleterious impact on babies created after long-term storage of frozen human embryos and oocytes. Therefore, the next steps should involve similar experiments taking place under the conditions of being in an outer space environment, where radiation levels are far higher than on Earth, before considering the generation of embryos using cryopreserved gametes stored on space stations.
Nonetheless, the risks of reduced viability due to radiation levels and microgravity are not the only concerns related to the cryostorage and shipment of human gametes. There are other risks associated with the cryostorage of biological material, both on Earth and in Space, ranging from the transmission of diseases between samples stored in liquid nitrogen, to unintentional loss due accidental warming. The loss of oocytes and embryos due to major equipment failure has been reported in fertility clinics, with thousands of gametes and embryos being lost worldwide. As reported by assisted reproduction specialist Dr Mina Alikani in 2018, the maintenance of a very low temperature and avoidance of temperature fluctuations are key factors for the safe and long-term cryostorage of human cells and tissues. Additionally, the shipment and handling of cryopreserved biological samples represents another potential hazard for gametes and embryos. Results of research by Casey McDonald and colleagues in 2011, using donated human oocytes, warned of the effects of the ‘inherent perils of shipping’ on the lowering of survival rates, with exposure to elevated ambient temperature and air pressure, vibration or any other physical shock potentially contributing to poorer results.
Therefore, for the successful transport of biological samples under cryostorage, it is essential that appropriate shipping vessels be used, such as those allowing continuous temperature monitoring, rather than relying on data collected at the final destination.
Big question marks remain as to whether healthy babies can be born following the use of in vitro fertilization technologies performed in outer space. Furthermore, major safety and ethical concerns must be taken into consideration before such a giant leap for humanity is taken.
See also article: Assisted reproduction frontiers in outer space
Adam J Crellin
Graduate Medical Student, Oxford University; Analog Astronaut, Austrian Space Forum
While attending the 2019 European Mars Conference in London this week at the Institute of Physics, we had the pleasure of witnessing the graduation ceremony of the next cohort of newly qualified Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) analog astronauts, who will take part in next years' AMADEE20 Mars analog mission in Israel. Analog astronauts are people who have been trained to test equipment and conduct activities under simulated space conditions, and they play an important role in preparing for future Moon and Mars missions. We liked so much the graduation speech given by analog astronaut Adam Crellin that we asked if we could publish it here on the InnovaSpace website to inspire all the young would-be astronauts out there - dream big!
"I would like to open by saying not only how much of an honour it is to speak on behalf of my classmates and the Austrian Space Forum today, but also to stand in front of you all as a newly qualified analog astronaut. I am especially proud to be speaking at a European-wide conference in the UK, organised by the recently reformed Mars Society UK.
In classrooms across the UK, and even the world, children are being asked by their primary school teachers, the existential question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’. Some of these children, fascinated by space, will say they want to be an astronaut. Children often continue this hope as they grow older, perhaps keeping it a bit quieter, guarding it a bit more closely. Later, they then discover that there are a huge range of diverse opportunities in space, and that astronauts are one small cog in a large machine. A machine that contains astronauts who plant flags; plant experts who grow astrocrops; astronomers who study the universe and its laws; lawyers who write legislation through careful engineering; engineers who build spacecraft that rock; and, well, for those who like rocks, there is geology as well as countless other professions."
Dr Andrew Winnard
Lecturer in Clinical/Musculoskeletal Biomechanics; Lead for the Aerospace Medicine Systematic Review Group; Chartered Physiotherapist; Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Northumbria University
This was a question that the European Astronaut Centre space medicine office asked the Aerospace Medicine Systematic Review Group (AMSRG). With space agencies planning missions beyond low Earth orbit, in spacecraft that might not be as easy to exercise inside as the International Space Station, this question is becoming more relevant. While it is clear that countermeasures are needed to maintain muscle during microgravity exposure, there were questions such as ‘should we really be going to the Moon without exercising?’; ‘can we safely have pauses in countermeasures during Earth-Mars transits?’; and ultimately ‘how long can humans go in microgravity, without exercising, before the muscles seriously decondition?’.
There appeared to be some information available in the research base but no clear and transparent synthesis existed on which to make evidence based medical decisions. The AMSRG, led by Prof Nick Caplan, Dr Rochelle Velho and myself, based at Northumbria University’s Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation Laboratory, is all about working with spaceflight operations to provide high quality, evidence based medical guidance and, therefore, we took these questions on readily. It was determined that if data from inactive/no intervention control groups within any study done with astronauts or bed rest participants could be extracted, it would provide the evidence based information on which to inform the questions being asked. The team worked for almost two years, screening 754 potential studies, before extracting data from control groups of 75 individual included sources, to calculate 922 individual effect sizes, making this the largest review the AMSRG has conducted to date. All the included studies were from bed rest, ranging from 60-120 days, with mostly high risk of bias (using Cochrane’s risk of bias tool) and typically scoring 4 out of 8 for bed rest quality (using AMSRG’s bed rest quality tool). Across all the studies the team found that moderate deconditioning effects (effect size ≥0.6) occur between 7-15 days, with large deconditioning effects (effect size ≥1.2) occurring by 28 days.
Based on this, it seems that a 5 day Earth-Lunar transit period is probably safe to complete without exercise, at least for the skeletal muscle outcomes. However a Mars transit, that is likely to be 200+days, needs to counteract muscle deconditioning if the crew is to arrive and be able to function in a gravity loaded environment. Additional consideration was given to ‘worst case scenarios’, such as if there were a crew member more susceptible to low gravity induced muscle changes, for which the team used the most extreme negative end of the confidence intervals as a model. In these cases, a large deconditioning effect could be reached by 7 days and then even the travel time to the Moon could potentially become problematic. However, this model is rather crude due to large confidence intervals caused by the typical low sample sizes in human spaceflight research, and individual effects are difficult to determine in a way that is easily transferable to astronauts. Over the whole evidence base, there was great variety in outcome measures and time points evaluated across studies, along with limited data for all outcome measure subgroups, with research gaps highlighted in the published review’s results tables. No patient reported outcome measures of minimal clinical worthwhile changes were established that would help provide a more patient-centred approach to space medicine. This has been a common finding in AMSRG reviews. While space agencies require astronaut simulating bed rest studies to be done to set standards, it might be useful to try and establish a list of core outcome measures that would benefit human spaceflight operations, to become a foundation for patient-centred space medicine and to standardise the data presented to the field as a whole.
Dr Joaquim Ignácio S da Mota Neto / Dr Thais Russomano
Psychiatrist, Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil / Founder & Scientific Director, InnovaSpace
The brain is the prime and most complex organ of the human body and within it takes place the sophisticated phenomena that define us as human beings, enabling recognition of and interaction with our surroundings. Basic and primitive survival functions pass through the different formations and axes of the Central and Peripheral Nervous System, but far beyond this are the many other functions that differ in complexity and high degree of neural connectivity, such as those performed by the limbic system, containing the hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdala.
These important structures are responsible for integrating and giving context to aspects of emotions, memories and learning, thus building our cognitive capacities. Therefore, it is essential to maintain the functionality of these cerebral regions that permit the acquisition, storage and recall of information, as together with the cerebral cortex, they are fundamental for several aspects of personal, social and professional performance.
The perception of potential fragility of these intricate brain structures is inevitable, when faced with extreme and unknown situations, such as one might encounter on a manned trip to Mars. The effects of different space features, such as radiation or microgravity, may pose a threat not only to the ability of an astronaut to perform both simple and complex tasks, but also to control emotions or react in an adequate manner to a new environment in which access to old memories may become essential.
A recently published article by Mike Wall of Space.com presented the issue of space radiation and how it can affect the brain function and psychological behaviour of animals, in research using a new scientific approach. The study conducted by Munjal Acharya & Janet Baulch of the University of California and Peter Klein of Stanford University, exposed mice for the first time to a continuous and chronic low-dosage radiation (1mGy/day). The idea of the research team was to mimic a manned trip to Mars, during which astronauts would be exposed to 6 months of low-dosage, deep-space radiation. This type of protocol differs from those previously used, in which animals were submitted to high-dosage radiation over short time periods.
The space environment is very unique and is full of radiation in the form of galactic cosmic rays, particles of high energy and charge, and solar particle events, which differ from the low-LET (X- or g-rays) radiation that is predominant on Earth. Radiation is known to affect humans in several ways, in three distinct phases: acute, latent and chronic effects. Chemical mediators are first released from damaged cells, particularly from bone marrow, lymphoid tissues and the gastrointestinal tract, leading to symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and malaise. The latent phase is free of symptoms as it represents the time between the initial cell injury and manifestation of cell renewal. Chronic effects include a decrease in cell count, and increase in the risk of developing cancer, and degenerative and infectious diseases.
The negative impact of radiation on the Central Nervous System (CNS) has been considered relatively minor, as the CNS is formed of few actively dividing cells, which provides it with a type of natural resistance. Nonetheless, some studies have demonstrated that space radiation could potentially produce undesirable effects on the brain, including a decrease in function and neurodegeneration.
The results from the mice study would seem to corroborate the hypothesis that radiation can indeed cause deleterious effects on the CNS, perhaps due to the longer 6-month period of exposure to the low-dose radiation. These findings, published in the Society for Neuroscience's open-access journal, eNeuro, suggest that mice exposed to radiation had alterations in their hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and the prefrontal lobe of the cortex, dedicated to cognitive functions and social relationships. The neurological pathway has yet to be defined, but it is already of serious concern to the space scientific community, as such alterations could cause impairment in psychological performance, especially during stressful and critical situations, like those that could easily be experienced during an interplanetary trip, which is exactly the occasion when clear and immediate decision-making or problem-solving responses are needed!
Under normal conditions on Earth, the human cognitive and emotional processes can struggle to perform well enough to cope with the demands of everyday life, and therefore, the subjective and objective adversities of adapting to a long-duration trip to another planet could be a huge challenge. Even if we are able to control each one of the many physical or psychological variables that could impact on our relationship with the space environment, aerospace science still needs to deal with poorly understood aspects related to the interaction of executive memory with emotions, with experts having highlighted that what we remember is never the same as what was originally set to be fixed in our memory - the material undergoes change in the storage process as each individual adds personal characteristics to the stored element.
The peculiarities of the human brain and its crossovers between the acts of feeling, thinking, planning and performing have already led humanity to evolve, overcoming innumerous obstacles from the Stone Age to the Modern Era. However, even in a place with no palpable barriers, like the vastness of space, there will be invisible elements, such as radiation, that could be powerful enough to delay or impede human omnipotence and omnipresence in the exploration of the Universe.
Department of Morphological Sciences, ICBS, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Amazing as it may seem, as the number of spaceflights has increased and life aboard space stations has become a reality, the effects of high levels of space radiation and microgravity (micro-G) on mammalian reproduction are still largely unknown. Therefore, the study of reproduction in space is a very important subject for the future of space missions. Research conducted with experimental non-mammal animals, such as sea urchins, fish, amphibians, and birds has concluded that micro-G does not prevent animal reproduction. However, mammalian reproduction presents specific features, such as ovulation, sperm and oocyte (egg) transit in the reproductive tract, embryo attachment, implantation and placentation, which are specific to mammalian reproduction and cannot be studied in non-mammal species. Surprisingly, little information is available today on how these processes occur in conditions of microgravity.
A first problem requiring investigation is the supposed difficulty that sperm and egg cells may have to travel along the female reproductive tract to accomplish natural fertilization under micro-G conditions. A project with 100% relevance is NASA’s Micro-11 research, which aims to examine putative motility alterations in human and bull sperm during spaceflight. “Micro-11 provides fundamental data indicating whether successful human reproduction beyond Earth is possible, and whether countermeasures are needed to protect sperm function in space” (NASA). Rapid directional sperm motility is a key factor for successful fertilisation under natural circumstances. Sperm cells need to swim up the uterine cervix, travel through the uterine cavity and fallopian tubes to meet and fertilise the oocyte. To accomplish all these tasks, human sperm respond to chemoattractant signals, to temperature gradient, and to fluid flow. These guidance mechanisms occur naturally along the female reproductive tract and are important for the sperm-egg encounter and for natural fertilisation to occur in the fallopian tubes, but will these mechanisms be sufficient in micro-G?
Experimental studies with mice have revealed impaired male germ cell generation under microgravity conditions. Of concern are alterations seen in the physiology of testicular cells observed under conditions of simulated microgravity, which may obscure the starting point of mechanisms that lead to long-lasting tumorigenic processes. However, a recent research has shown that the deleterious effects of microgravity on germ cell proliferation, oxidative metabolism and autophagy may be, at least partially, prevented by the presence of antioxidants in the germ cell culture medium. This finding represents an important contribution to the current knowledge of microgravity effects on germ cell tumour metabolism and development.
According to estimates, nearly one in six couples worldwide seek out assisted reproduction technologies for having a child. Thus, it is expected that fertility assistance may also be necessary in space due to naturally occurring fertility problems or due to micro-G induced infertility conditions. A report from the 35th annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology recently revealed that frozen human sperm retain their viability and fertilising capacity in outer space, similar to sperm samples stored in liquid nitrogen under Earth’s gravity conditions. This represents a reassuring finding, particularly when considering the importance of sperm cryostorage for fertility preservation, such as in the case of cancer patients who may lose their reproductive potential due to oncological treatments. It also allows us to hypothesise that donor intra-uterine insemination may represent a viable option for having a child under the micro-G conditions found in space stations.
The more complex assisted reproduction technology (ART), “in vitro fertilisation” (IVF), developed by Sir Robert Edwards and Dr. Patrick Steptoe, allows fertilisation to occur outside of the body, i.e., outside its natural tubal environment, in a plastic petri dish, giving rise to the term “test-tube” baby. Its main purpose is to promote fertilisation when the natural encounter of sperm and oocyte is not possible, as is the case of women presenting blocked uterine horns. In summary, oocytes are first collected from the ovaries, (performed by transvaginal ovarian puncture and aspiration) and placed in a petri “IVF” dish containing a culture medium that mimics the tubal micro-environment. The male partner produces a sperm sample, which is prepared for mixing with the oocytes, after which the IVF dish is maintained in a warm incubator (37oC) in a laboratory for fertilisation to take place. The sperm must be able to swim and penetrate the oocyte membrane for fertilisation to be accomplished, and to assist this they are placed close together to facilitate their interaction and fusion.
The resulting embryos remain in the incubator for up to six or seven days, before being transferred to the womb. However, fertilisation will not occur under natural or even IVF conditions when the ejaculated sperm do not present rapid directional motility in a condition called asthenospermia, a common cause of unsuccessful reproduction among infertile couples. To help these individuals generate their own descendants, the ART “intracytoplasmic sperm injection” (ICSI) technique was developed by Dr. Gianpietro Palermo. ICSI allows fertilisation to occur even when the sperm sample is poor in terms of number and/or motility.
The technique uses a micromanipulation station fitted to an inverted microscope equipped with contrast optics that enable three-dimensional visualisation of living cells. The ICSI micromanipulation equipment consists of two glass pipettes; a holding pipette to fix the oocyte and an injection pipette to introduce the sperm into the oocyte cytoplasm (see below video). The ICSI insemination strategy allows fertilisation to occur even under unfavourable conditions, and it can perhaps be hypothesised that this technology may be of assistance in the case of sperm motility deficiencies in outer space, where micro-G conditions may prevent natural, unassisted sperm-egg fusion.
Undoubtedly, much more research needs to be performed before we can erase the large question marks that remain as to the likelihood of natural fertilisation taking place in mammals under micro-G conditions, and if required, how effective current assisted reproduction technology would be when using the ART setup and equipment developed on Earth. With talk of future Moon and Mars colonisation and space hotels in the coming decades, there will come a time when human reproduction under microgravity conditions will need to be better addressed if life is to be sustained in off-Earth environments.
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