NASA is sending human sperm to space
At any given point in time, you can count on the fact that NASA will be up to something important. Whether they're busy finding water on Mars, or targeting asteroids so valuable, they could crash the world's economy, the independent agency's calendar is booked up with missions and investigations of paramount importance.
However, just because NASA is always up to something of significance, it doesn't mean that their expeditions don't sound a little odd sometimes. Take their latest operation, managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, for instance. Just recently, NASA rocketed human sperm into space as part of SpaceX’s fourteenth cargo resupply mission to the space station. Yup, you read that right. Human sperm.
The new mission, called Micro-11, will focus on studying the way the sperm from 12 humans behave in space, comparing it with the sperm of 12 bulls. Firstly, researchers will look at how the lack of gravity affects fertilisation - hoping to confirm if it is possible for humans to reproduce in space. Secondly, it is believed that studying the movement of sperm without the interference of gravity could reveal processes that can’t be seen on Earth. Earlier studies for other types of sperm in space have already pinpointed some interesting activity, but unfortunately, it's not all good news. In fact, previous studies of spermatozoa in space suggest that the lack of gravity might cause some big problems for procreation.
Everyone knows how mammalian reproduction works: sperm meets egg, sperm fuses with egg and reproduction is accomplished. However, there is actually a bit more that goes on in between. In fact, the sperm cell needs to be activated in order to start moving and it needs to begin moving quickly, in order to prepare for fusion. But things don’t go quite as planned when the sperm is in microgravity.
NASA explained in their press release about Micro-11, stating: "In mammals, including humans, fertilization occurs when a sperm cell swims toward an egg and fuses with it. Before this can happen, the sperm cell must be activated to start moving. Next, to prepare it for fusing with the egg, the sperm needs to move faster, and its cell membrane must become more fluid. Previous experiments with sea urchin and bull sperm suggest that activating movement happens more quickly in microgravity, while the steps leading up to fusion happen more slowly, or not at all. Delays or problems at this stage could prevent fertilization from happening in space."
In addition, to investigate the movement of sperm in weightless conditions, NASA will video the sperm's movement using a microscopic camera before preserving the sperm for scientists on the ground to analyze. While human sperm is pretty diverse in its motion and appearance, bull sperm is much more uniform and they will use the bull sperm as a quality control to make sure they are able to detect small changes in both types.
Whether humans are capable of reproducing in space is likely to be a question that has never crossed many people's minds - for good reason really. The closest most of us have gotten to space has been looking at the stars through a telescope, so why on earth would we ever think about reproducing up there? Nonetheless, this knowledge could certainly become useful when the expected "space age" kicks in and humans are free to explore the wider solar system with ease.
Furthermore, the experiment may eventually prove crucial for human survival. Only weeks before his death, Professor Stephen Hawking claimed that humans only have 100 years left on Earth and need to find a new planet to inhabit fast. As part of the BBC’s new science series Tomorrow’s World, the late genius revised down his former time estimate of between 1,000 and 10,000 years, which he had given months before, asserting that due to climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, humans will need to find a new planet to populate within a single lifetime.
Hawking isn't the only one who is concerned about the human race's survival. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has unveiled a grand plan to colonise Mars within the next 100-years and NASA has said its Mars missions could help to put humans permanently on other planets. Furthermore, top Pentagon space expert, Winston Beauchamp, has stated that, despite political tensions, nations must work together to "get the human race off this planet onto another planet."
However, even if we did move, would we be relocating to just eventually die out anyway? Humans, as far as we know, have never had sex in space, with astronauts on the International Space Station presumably being too busy with important research to get busy. However, even if they did try, evidence suggests that it would be easier said than done.
The lack of gravity presents several difficulties for the performance of most sexual activities. Firstly, scientists have claimed that it would be difficult to become horny in the first place given the fact that gravity helps our blood flow to the lower parts of our body. In space, blood rises to your head and chest, meaning that both male and female arousal would be problematic.
Even if a couple does manage to get past this rather large blockade, the lack of gravitational acceleration would cause further issues during intercourse. According to Newton's law, if the couple does manage to remain attached, their movements will counter each other. “Every push or thrust will propel the astronaut in the opposite direction,” Anderson University physicist John Millis told Buzzfeed. “Imagine a pair of ice skaters standing on fresh ice. If they were to push their hands against one another, they would each shoot backwards away from each other.”
So, to sum up, NASA - and the rest of humankind - have a rather large job on their hands. In order to guarantee survival, we must fathom how to become aroused in space, figure out if it's possible to actually have sex up there and, after all this, ensure that fertilisation is possible. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Oh, and then if we somehow do that, we also have the small issue of helping the resulting fetus to survive in the high radiation levels found in space.
Is anyone else nervous?