The active interaction of neonatal animals with their environment has been shown to be a decisive factor in the postnatal development of sensory systems, which demonstrates a critical period in their maturation. The direct demonstration of such a dependence on the rearing environment has not been demonstrated for motor system function. Nor has the role of gravity in mammalian motor system development been investigated. Here we report the results of two space flight missions examining the effect of removing gravity on the development of surface righting. Since the essential stimulus that drives this synergy, gravitation, was missing, righting did not occur while the animals were in the microgravity environment. We hypothesize that this absence of contextual motor experience arrested the maturation of the motor tactics for surface righting. Such effects were permanent in rats spending 16 days (from postnatal day (P), P14 to P30), but were transient in animals spending nine days (from P15 to P24) in microgravity. Thus, active, contextual interaction with the environment during a critical period of development is necessary for the postnatal maturation of motor tactics as exemplified by surface righting, and such events must occur within a particular time period. Further, Earth’s gravitational field is not assumed by the developing motor system. Rather, postnatal motor system development is appropriate to the gravitational field in which the animal is reared.
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Much effort has been devoted to understanding the mechanisms underlying such activity-dependent development. Most of these studies have been implemented in sensory systems where visual, auditory, somatosensory, olfactory, or other input has been modified, restricted, or eliminated during postnatal development (Meisami, 1978; Conlee & Parks, 1981; Gray et al. 1982; Fox, 1992; Schlaggar et al. 1993; O’Leary et al. 1994; Penn & Shatz, 1999; Zou et al. 2004). Although it is difficult to eliminate or restrict vestibular input, studies of otoconia-deficient mice have shown that the development of the vestibular system is dependent on afferent activity (Trune & Lim, 1983; Kozel et al. 1998).
The present study addresses the role of experience in the postnatal development of motor behaviour. In the past, manipulation of motor systems has involved invasive paradigms (Sheard et al. 1984; Lowrie et al. 1987; O’Hanlon & Lowrie, 1993) or pharmacological stimulation (Sanusi et al. 1998) that make the interpretation of research findings ambiguous. In our search for a non-invasive approach to altering motor experience, we explored the possibility of removing gravity. We reasoned that since evolution took place in the presence of gravity, this parameter is expected to be present and thus incorporated into the control, by the nervous system, of the movement of each joint of the articulated skeleton (Roberts, 1967). Thus, the presence of gravity may be as fundamental to the development of posture and movement as images are to the development of vision. Thus, we modified the load imposed on articulated joints by gravity to find whether development of motor function was indeed dependent on experience, and whether ‘critical periods’ were involved. In particular, we asked if the presence of a gravitational field is necessary for the proper development of motor function.
First, we adapted neonates to a non-invasive model, tail suspension, used for simulating weightlessness in adult rats (Fitts et al. 1986). (In this paradigm animals are suspended by their tails to lift their hindlimbs off the ground.) By unloading the hindlimbs of neonatal rats, tail suspension modified the effects of gravity on the developing neuromuscular system. In our tail suspension studies, motor function before postnatal day (P) 15 was evaluated as the ability of the neonates to maintain their balance in the water and to swim. In older animals, locomotion and air righting were evaluated. Using these measures, we identified P8 to P13 as a sensitive period of development because tail suspension significantly increased swimming stroke duration in animals suspended during this period. Swimming style was also affected and the balance of suspended animals in the water was poor. This was most marked after three days of suspension (P11) when the animals could not keep their heads above the water and twisted about their longitudinal axis and sank. However, because these changes were reversed after suspension was ended, this was identified as a ‘sensitive’ rather than a ‘critical’ period of development. We identified P13 to P31 as a critical period for the development of motor skills because animals suspended during this period showed changes in locomotion that persisted unchanged for the 30 days after suspension they were studied (Walton et al. 1992; Walton, 1998). These findings provided the basis for the current space flight experiments.
In the first space flight experiment, neonatal rats experienced the microgravity of low earth orbit for nine days from P15 to P24. In the second experiment, the space shuttle flight lasted for 16 days and the animals were in microgravity from P14 to P30. Microgravity has several advantages over tail suspension in this type of study. In microgravity the entire animal, not only the hindlimbs, experiences unloading; the animal’s posture is not restricted; and the vestibular system, which plays an important role in motor function, is deprived of its fundamental gravitational input.
Several measures of motor function were evaluated in animals flown in space and those remaining on the ground including swimming (Walton et al. 2005) and free walking. Here, we report on the development of surface, or contact, righting. During ontogeny, surface righting reactions are among the earliest global motor behaviours executed by terrestrial vertebrates. They are also among the earliest defined in comparative neurology (Magnus, 1924). This behaviour is particularly suited to a study of motor system development because; (a) complex sensory–motor organization is required for the efficient rotation from a supine to a prone position, and (b) this motor skill gradually appears in its mature form over the first three postnatal weeks (Altman & Sudarshan, 1975; Markus & Petit, 1987; Pellis et al. 1991).
Based on our tail suspension studies (Walton et al. 1992), we hypothesized that the development of surface righting would be most sensitive to microgravity in flight animals launched on P8, but that this influence would be permanent only in the animals that remained in microgravity until P30. This paper reports our findings in animals launched on P14 or P15. An abstract of this work has appeared (Harding et al. 1999).
The experimental design compares motor function in young rats launched into low-earth orbit with age-matched control animals that remained on earth. The data set comprises measurements of surface righting in animals from two space shuttle flights: Neurolab (STS-90), a 16-day mission that included in-flight experiments; and National Institutes of Health Rodent Experiment 3 (NIH-R3, STS-72), a 9-day mission that did not include in-flight experiments. These are called the 16-day and the 9-day mission, respectively. They remain the only missions in which neonatal mammals experienced space flight.
Designation of days
Although only the flight animals were actually launched into space, we also use the term ‘launched’ to designate the first day of the experimental period for the ground control animals. Likewise, we use the term ‘landed’ to indicate both the day the flight animals returned to earth and the day the control animals were transferred to standard cages and returned to the general housing area of the Kennedy Space Center life sciences support facility. For both the animals flown in space and the those remaining on the ground, the day of the launch is also the first flight day while the last flight day, the day of landing, is called return day 0 (R0).
Sprague-Dawley dams and litters were obtained from Taconic Farms (Germantown, NY, USA). Litters with 7 female (16-day mission) or 10 male and female (9-day mission) neonates were delivered to Kennedy Space Center when the neonates were P7 (±12 h). Upon arrival at the life sciences support facility at the Kennedy Space Center, each dam and litter was individually housed in a standard vivarium cage. The animals were put on the same diet as during the subsequent space flight (food bars from Teklad Diet, American Institute of Baking). The specific pathogen-free status of each dam was verified.
|Mission||Age||Number of animals|
Experiments were carried out aboard the space shuttle Columbia, at the Kennedy Space Center life sciences support facility, and at the New York University School of Medicine. Local government authorities and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) approved all experimental procedures. The animals were cared for according to NIH, NASA, and New York University School of Medicine guidelines. The animals were weighed before the flight, on the day of landing, and during the postflight experimental period. The animals ate and gained weight normally during the flight and during the postflight experimental period (see Fig. 9). At the end of the postflight experimental period the 16-day animals were used for anatomical studies after humane killing (DeFelipe et al. 1999). At the end of the postflight experimental period, the 9-day animals and the P14 control animals were killed with an overdose of phenobarbital according to NIH, NASA, and New York University School of Medicine guidelines. When the animals were weaned, the dams were also killed with an overdose of phenobarbital.
The 9-day mission launched on schedule. The 16-day mission launched after a 24 h delay during which the animals remained in the space shuttle (flight animals) or ground control holding room. Within 3–4 h of landing the cages were removed from the space shuttle or ground control rooms and brought to a ‘portable clean room’ within the life science support facility. Here the animals were removed from the cages (see Fig. 1A) and inspected by a veterinarian. In both missions all the animals were judged to be in good health and were distributed to the research teams.
Procedures and data analysis
Three values for surface righting times were determined using frame-by-frame analysis: When the animal was free to move (Start), when the head rotated 90 deg (16-day mission) or 180 deg (9-day mission) (Head), and when both hindlimbs touched the ground to complete the movement (Hindlimbs). Using these data, the time to turn the head (Head–Start), the hindquarters (Hindlimbs–Head), and to complete righting (Hindlimbs–Start) were calculated. Only trials in which the entire turn could be seen clearly and the movement was not impeded were measured.
Statistical analysis was carried out using one-way ANOVA with Scheffe’s post hoc test (for more than one nominal independent variable), or using Student’s unpaired t test (for one nominal independent variable). Fisher’s r to z was used to determine significance of correlation coefficients (StatView 5.0, SAS Institute Inc.). A level of P < 0.05 was considered to be statistically significant. From 12 to 15 trials per animal per day were included in our analysis.
We have found that the presence of a gravitational field is necessary for the postnatal development of surface righting in neonatal rats. The data from the 16-day and 9-day missions are presented together. The results are organized to answer six basic questions.
Does surface righting occur in microgravity?
Access to a microgravity environment provided a unique opportunity to study surface righting because the contribution of the gravitational sensors could be separated from tactile and somatosensory signals. We found that the presence of a gravitational field is necessary for surface righting to be elicited in young rats. Indeed, no righting reactions were elicited during the in-flight trials when the animals were released with the head straight (0 of 13 trials). Neck-on-body righting was not elicited when the animals were held supine with the head rotated about the roll axis (0 of 12 trials). Indeed, rather than rotating the body to become aligned with the head as in the control animals, when they were in space, the animals rotated the head to align it with the body. When animals were released in microgravity, they exhibited a rapid and sustained extension of all four limbs. This posture was maintained until the limbs touched a surface. Most often, this surface was provided by one of the bars located above the animal walking apparatus platform (Fig. 1B). In contrast, the age- and cage-matched ground control animals executed prompt righting on all the trials (21 of 21 trials from each position). In answer to the first question: surface righting does not occur in microgravity.
Is surface righting similar in flight and control animals on the day of landing?
The strategy the nervous system uses to achieve a particular goal, e.g. being upright, is couched in general terms such as ‘move from supine to prone’. The exact movements used to achieve this goal, the motor tactics, vary in neonatal rats over the first postnatal weeks. The normal development of surface righting tactics follows an overlapping progression from U-posture, to corkscrew, to axial righting as described by Pellis (Pellis et al. 1991) (see Fig. 2).
As shown in Fig. 3A, there were no significant differences in surface righting between the animals housed in flight-like cages and those housed in standard vivarium cages during the 16-day mission. For this reason, the data from both groups are combined into one ground control group in the remaining figures. As illustrated in Fig. 3, the answer to the second question is: surface righting tactics differ in flight and control animals on the day of landing.
Are the righting characteristics seen on landing day maintained throughout the postflight period?
Righting was very similar in control animals from both missions (Fig. 5A and B). Between launch and landing there was a significant decrease in the use of corkscrew (P < 0.05) in favour of axial righting. However, during the postflight period there were no significant differences in the tactics used by either group of control animals. When the tactics used on P14 (16-day mission launch) and on landing day were compared, the same pattern was seen in flight animals from the 16-day (Fig. 5C) and the 9-day (Fig. 5D) mission: (1) the occurrence of axial righting was similar at launch and landing; (2) corkscrew righting decreased from launch values (P < 0.05); (3) L-posture and U & C righting appeared for the first time; (4) U-posture righting increased from launch values (this was significant in the animals flown in space for 9 days, P < 0.01).
After the day of landing there were differences between the two missions. In the animals flown in space for 16 days, tactics incorporating ventroflexion (bars containing red) predominated through to recovery day 23 (R23, Fig. 5C), and were greater than control values on each test day (P < 0.01). After three months of recovery, the dominant non-axial tactic was corkscrew righting (Fig. 5C, last two columns). This was greater than control values (P < 0.05, t test). Note that the percentage of trials utilizing axial righting was unchanged. In the animals flown in space for 9 days, tactics incorporating ventroflexion reached control levels by one day after landing, and corkscrew righting reached control levels by two days after landing. There were no further significant changes in the tactics used. There is no single answer to the third question because the persistence of righting tactics after landing is influenced by the age of the animals, the length of the flight, or both factors.
Does head position influence righting tactics?
To examine which factors influence righting tactics, on the day of landing we evaluated the effect of head position in the animals from the 16-day mission. The righting tactics used are compared in Fig. 6for animals held supine with the head straight (open bars) or the rotated about the roll axis (filled bars). In the control animals, rotating the head eliminated U-posture righting (P < 0.01) and decreased corkscrew righting (P < 0.01) in favour of axial righting (Fig. 6A). In the animals flown in space (Fig. 6B) head rotation increased axial (P < 0.05) and corkscrew (P < 0.01) righting, decreased U- and L-posture righting, and eliminated U & C righting. Significant differences remained between flight and ground control animals in the proportion of axial (P < 0.0001), corkscrew (P < 0.05), and U-posture (P < 0.0001) righting from the head-rotated position (t test). These data indicate that initial head position influences which righting tactic is used.
Does microgravity differentially influence the development of surface righting tactics and speed as tested on landing day?
|Group||Corkscrew||U-posture||U and C||L-posture|
|U & C||†||†|
In the 9-day mission, axial righting was slower in the flight than in the control animals on landing day (not shown). This was largely (about 70%) due to slow head, rather than hindquarter, rotation in animals flown in space. Control values were reached by the second day after landing.
In answer to the fifth question: microgravity had a differential effect on the development of righting tactics and speed. The movement sequence required for righting was not activated when the animals were in microgravity. However, the animals continued to move and their overall movement speed increased while they were in microgravity.
Was the nutritional state of the animals a significant variable in our behavioural findings?
One consideration in carrying out space flight experiments is differentiating the effects of microgravity from other parameters of space flight. This is particularly the case for young animals where nutritional state may be adversely affected. To evaluate this factor, we weighed the animals on the day of landing and during the postflight study. For both missions the weight of the flight animals did not differ significantly from the age-matched ground controls (Fig. 9A and B). To determine if flight and control animals gained weight at the same rate after landing, a straight line was fitted to the weight versusdays after landing plot for each animal (correlation coefficient 0.99–1) and the slope determined. The mean slope for each group of animals was then calculated. Over the first 30 days after landing, flight and control animals gained weight at the same rate (Fig. 9C and D). We did observe a clear cage effect on the growth of the two groups of 16-day ground control animals. The vivarium animals were heavier than the control animals housed in flight-like cages (P < 0.05) on landing day. The answer to the fifth question is: nutritional state, as reflected by both body weight and weight gain did not significantly change, thus it was not a determinant of our behavioural findings.
Other parameters such as light level or temperature were regulated both in ground control and flight conditions, as dictated by animal welfare guidelines. It was only during the short period of launch and landing that such issues as increased vibration and noise common to all space flights could not be controlled. Centrifuge studies simulating the changes in gravitational force during launch and landing showed that these changes alone did not influence surface righting (K.W. personal observation). The only long-term parameters that differ were radiation levels and the reduction in the gravitational field.
Comments on space-flight studies
Historically, biological studies concerning the microgravity of low earth orbit have been characterized by limitations that are not typically faced in ground-based studies. These include a small number of animals, the inability to control mission duration, a delay between landing and receipt of the animals by the investigators, and the need to share the animals with other investigators. In addition, the surface area available to the animals for locomotion is increased in microgravity, since animals move about the sides and top of the cage as well as the earth-defined cage bottom. The present study has overcome many of these shortcomings. Young animals have less mass than adults, allowing us to increase the number of subjects, and animals were received within hours of the shuttle landing. We had the rare opportunity of two related missions thus allowing us to compare missions of different duration. The major factors beyond our control in the present missions were the different ages of the animals at launch (P14 and P15) and a limitation on the postflight study period after the 9-day mission to 7 days. However, our results are so unambiguous as to conclude that for this type of study the advantages of space flight far outweigh its limitations.
Our findings suggest that the maturation of surface righting occurs through activity-dependent sensory–motor circuit optimization, and this involves the proper dynamic interaction of utricular- and saccular-dependent vestibulocolic and vestibulospinal reflexes to ensure proper ipsilateral head, shoulder, and hindquarter rotation. Further, we hypothesize that the presence of gravity is a prerequisite and that the primary effect of removing this stimulus occurs at the level of the central nervous system (CNS) rather than at the peripheral receptor system, muscles, or bones.
The central findings supporting these conclusions are: (1) surface righting synergy was not activated under microgravity conditions; (2) in the absence of the appropriate gravitational stimulus, other, simpler synergies were implemented that allowed rapid intentional movements without the prodromic postural rearrangement predicated by earth’s gravitational field (Fig. 3); (3) the development of surface righting resumed in P24 animals after a 9-day space flight, but not in P30 animals after a 16-day space flight (Figs 4 and 5).
Surface righting: a synergy to counter gravity
The development of surface righting over the first three weeks of life (Pellis et al. 1991) exemplifies the postnatal optimization of motor skills to achieve optimal execution (energy conservation and speed) typical of adult movements (Bernstein, 1967; Abitbol, 1988). Rats are capable of righting themselves from the supine position at birth. Indeed, rotation is an important component of the motor strategy neonates use to reach the dam’s nipple (Eilam & Smotherman, 1998). There is an overlapping progression from non-axial to axial righting with age: U-posture righting, predominating at birth, is first lost in favour of corkscrew righting (P0 to P12), which is then lost in favour of axial righting (P10–P25). There is a sharp increase in axial righting near P10, this tactic predominates by P15–P16 and continues to increase during the second postnatal week (Pellis et al. 1991) (Fig. 5A and B).
We have shown that an important element in determining surface righting tactics is whether the first movement is head rotation or ventroflexion. Indeed, head rotation eliminated tactics utilizing ventroflexion in favour of axial and corkscrew righting (Fig. 6), following the same sequence as seen during normal development.
Through the in-flight trials we have shown for the first time that surface righting in rats requires appropriate otolithic input. The tactile and somatosensory clues present when an animal was ‘placed on its back’ in space were insufficient to elicit righting. Under such conditions, even when these stimuli were supplemented by head rotation about the roll axis, righting movements were not elicited. It is clear therefore that the vestibulocolic (vestibular-on-head) and vestibulospinal (neck-on-body) reflexes (Magnus, 1924) were not activated. In contrast, when the animal was released from the head-rotated position, the head moved to become realigned with the body. This head movement, opposite to that needed for righting, demonstrates that: (1) the intact cervicocollic stretch reflex predominated over other stimuli in microgravity; (2) colic input to vestibular circuits elicits appropriate responses; (3) animals are able to execute a well-defined movement without having to organize their postural system as is necessary in the presence of gravity.
Upon landing it was clear that the maturation of righting tactic normally seen after P14 and P15 (Pellis et al. 1991) did not occur while the animals were flown in space. Indeed, the percentage of axial righting immediately postflight was indistinguishable from preflight values (Fig. 3). In addition, there was an increased use of righting with ventroflexion on the day of landing in flight animals from both missions (Fig. 5). This continued for at least three weeks in animals from the 16-day mission and could be viewed as developmental regression since such righting predominates at birth (Pellis et al. 1991).
Activity-dependent circuit optimization
In the classical description of air righting, head rotation is elicited by otolithic stimulation; shoulder rotation is then recruited by head rotation, and hindquarter rotation is, in turn, recruited by the asymmetrical position of the forequarters (Magnus, 1924). This sequence occurs in the rat, although the need for a cervical reflex to recruit shoulder rotation has been questioned (Pellis, 1996). According to the classical description, axial and corkscrew righting may be considered as legitimate righting tactics while those involving ventroflexion fall outside this category. Ventroflexion occurs when the midline musculature is activated in the absence of head or shoulder rotation. It is elicited, at least in part, by direct vestibular activation since this movement was not seen in microgravity. However, ventroflexion is poorly matched with the motor intention of being prone and may result from the undifferentiated recruitment of motoneurone pools by vestibular and other input.
The relative stability of axial righting frequency after space flight (Fig. 5C and D) suggests that once these circuits are established they are quite robust and are not subject to change. This is in contrast to those underlying other righting tactics, which seem to be more sensitive to lack of use. This is a reasonable hypothesis since neuronal circuits activated during axial righting will serve the animal throughout its lifetime, while those activated during non-axial righting are transient and only activated by otolithic input in the first weeks of life.
The increased speed of righting in flight animals between launch and landing support the continued development in microgravity of neuronal circuits that would be activated during surface righting on the ground (Fig. 7). This is consistent with the fact that these circuits take part in other movements. The slow righting on the first day of testing was probably due to a lack of utilization of these circuits in the context of righting, rather than a delay in development of cellular processes underlying movement speed such as myelination. This interpretation is supported by two observations: (1) on the first day of testing, there was a negative correlation between trial number and righting speed in flight but not control animals. Thus, as the flight animals gained motor experience their performance improved (contextual circuit optimization); (2) flight animals from both missions reached control levels by the second day of testing.
These observations suggest that circuit maturation at the spinal cord level plays a role in the acquisition of mature surface righting tactics. Thus, surface righting maturation occurs in two steps in an age- and activity-dependent fashion: First, vestibular-on-head circuits are reinforced, resulting in head rotation upon otolithic stimulation and reducing undifferentiated movements such as those incorporating ventroflexion. Second, as vestibulospinal pathways mature in the second and third postnatal weeks (10 Donkelaar, 2000), the frequency of immature righting tactics decreases in favour of axial righting. These data strongly suggest that while the animals were flown in space, the maturation of CNS circuits underlying the preference of using one surface righting tactic over another did not proceed as it did in the control animals. Furthermore, in animals from the 16-day mission, such lack of maturation extended for the life of the animal in the presence of otherwise normal vestibular function. Indeed, a recent study has demonstrated changes in descending input and electrical properties of lumbar motoneurones of rats reared in hypergravity (Brocard et al. 2003).
The critical period hypothesis
Since surface righting did not take place during the space flight, one may say that the animals were deprived of surface righting in the same way one says that animals are deprived of visual stimuli during a period of lid suture in studies of visual development. The three relevant factors in this respect are the age of the neonates at launch, their age at landing, and mission duration. These are summarized in Fig. 10 for the 16-day mission (Fig. 10A) and the 9-day mission (Fig. 10B). Each panel is divided into a preflight, in-flight, and postflight period. The in-flight and postflight periods are subdivided to represent development of surface righting tactics (top bar) and speed (middle bar) in flight, and both parameters in control (bottom bar) animals. Periods of development are grey, those periods when development does not take place are white, and those during which adult characteristics are maintained are black. Our data do not allow us to determine when adult values are reached, although they were present at P24 in control animals (Fig. 4B). The findings that inform most directly about sensitive and critical periods of development are those concerning surface righting tactics after the animals returned from space flight.
Our hypothesis proposes: (a) that the maturation of righting tactics involves activity-dependent circuit optimization; (b) that this was arrested in the microgravity environment; and (c) it would not resume after landing if a critical period of development had elapsed. (The first two parts of this hypothesis have been discussed.) It follows that, with respect to this motor synergy, the functional age of the flight animals at launch and landing would be identical. If development resumed after the 9-day mission, axial righting would predominate by P16 (i.e. the first day after landing) and reach adult levels soon after. This was in fact the case (Fig. 4B). The functional age of the animals on the 16-day mission would be P14 at landing, not P30, and the frequency of axial righting would be expected to increase postflight. This was not the case (Fig. 4A). We seek the simplest hypothesis for this last finding.
A possible explanation lies in the animal’s chronological age. P30 animals are too old to refine their surface righting tactics and remain functionally P14 for the rest of their lives. Alternatively, it could be that they were in space too long. Accordingly, 16 days in space, at any age, would have the same effect. Both explanations are consistent with the existence of a critical period of development for the acquisition of surface righting tactics and with the fact that this period elapsed while the animals were in space. Further experiments are needed to find if this is indeed the case.
Role of the peripheral nervous system and the musculoskeletal system
Let’s face it the concept of space-sex is pretty hot. Plus, when we humans eventually strike out to create colonies on other planets , we’re going to need to procreate maybe even on the way there. But just how complicated will it be to put a bun in the oven while you’re on another planet?
Pretty difficult, actually. Space, it turns out, essentially acts as one bigbirth control system. One space-sex study published last fall predicts that cosmic radiation would bombard the body at such a high rate during a long space trip or an extended stay on Mars that sperm count would decrease and fetuses wouldn’t be able to properly develop in a space environment. Even though existing and proposed space conveyances have improved radiation protection, they don’t contain nearly enough shielding to allow zygotes to develop. And even if a baby was able to make it out of the womb, it would have a high probability of birth defects from the radiation damage.
And that’s not the end of the potential problems. Animal studies have shown that exposure to radiation can kill egg cells in a fetus as far along as the second or third trimester, so any babies born would be sterile making it hard to populate a new planet.
So what happens when astronauts return to Earth? At least one researcher who’s studied the scenario says that despite the reports, he hasn’t seen much evidence of compromised fertility. One doctor, Richard Jennings, an aerospace medicine expert at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said that he’s seen astronauts get their spouses pregnant soon after returning from a space flight. Longer space missions may warrant more study of the reproductive system, Jenningstold a newspaper last month.
But then there’s also the substantial challenge of actually doing the deed in space. Current space suits don’t have a lot of options for getting hot and heavy, but you would need to wear some sort of suit: In zero-gravity, sweat and other bodily fluids float away from writhing bodies and can possibly damage electronics. (This is exacerbated by the fact that people also get sweatier in space.) Some experts have suggested that “intimacy chambers” filled with droplets of cool water or scented oil could be added to theoretical tourist shuttles to help improve the mood.
But even with such wonderful, scented surroundings, body mechanics might prevent any magical moments. Microgravity decreases blood pressure, which could prevent the guy’s penis from becoming fully erect.
NASA’s a little prudish on the subject, by the way operating with a don’t ask don’t tell policy on the issue so don’t look to the agency for much guidance.
Drugs don’t work the same way in space, either so don’t count on those birth control pills to do their usual job. But it sounds like they may not be needed anyway in the future, we may all be sexually frustrated on our space vacations. The future pioneers who try to populate other worlds may need to do some serious rejiggering to create ships that will let the next generation of explorers live long, prosper and get it on.
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- Why Are 250 Sperm Cells Released During Sex?
Got a question? Send us an email and we’ll crack it. Follow Katharine Gammon on Twitter @kategammon.
Tiny feet can’t pitter-patter in zero-G.
Over time, microgravity does lots of nasty things to organic life systems; it forces muscles to atrophy, weakens bones, impairs vision and lowers blood volume, amongst other things. According to a recent symposium on interstellar travel, these physiological changes mean that the creation of space-babies in zero-g is more or less impossible, effectively ruling out any multi-generational space journeys until science masters artificial gravity. Given that a trip to even our nearest star would take hundreds of years, this problem represents a significant hurdle.
At their last meeting, experts from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) 100-Year Starship Symposium highlighted this issue as one of the biggest hurdles standing between humanity and deep space exploration. While making sweet space love is impractical, it is technically possible to procreate without the help of gravity (especially if you have one of these cosy love suits). Sadly, the next stage is where things take a turn for the worse: The effects of microgravity on a developing foetus are thought to be severe, ranging from brittle bones to circulatory problems and underdeveloped internal organs. There’s also the matter of bringing your little bundle of space-joy into the world (or, well, ship).
“Giving birth in zero gravity is going to be hell because gravity helps you [on Earth],” said Athena Andreadis, a biologist from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “You rely on the weight of the baby.”
“The distances to the stars are vast. Large starships will have to be self-sustainable. We don’t have such technology yet,” continued Andreadis. “We will have to grow up and do self-directed evolution, realizing that what comes out of the other end may not be human. If we stake our future among the stars, we must change for the journey and the destination.”
All of this means that we’re not going anywhere, perhaps not even Mars, until we master either artificial gravity or some seriously speedy travel methods. Although this news won’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s put serious thought into interstellar travel, it is humbling to be reminded of these things from time to time. Humans are perfectly adjusted for life on Earth; as Andreadis noted, we’ll have to adapt to both the journey and the destination if we’re ever to leave.
By: Patty Currier
August 26, 1999
I was recently contacted by Brandt Secosh who had received a question from Nur Agustinus, a student in Indonesia, regarding the birth of a baby in space (microgravity). I thought this was an interesting question that should be shared with all of the Space Team Online followers!
First, the question:
If a baby were born in space (microgravity) and grew up there, would it influence the structure of the bone or body? Would microgravity cause the muscles to be smaller than a child growing up normally on Earth?
I work with a lot of students here at Kennedy Space Center, but before I started doing this, I worked in a bone lab. So I think I can help you with your question.
This is for a lady who is going to have a baby as soon as she gets in space. Things will be more complicated if the fetus develops in space and is then born, so I’m not going to try to answer that one yet.
If a pregnant woman flies in space and gives birth almost right away, the baby will be born pretty normal because it will develop in the womb very normally at Earth’s gravity. What happens then is very interesting.
The bone cells are programmed to grow–they don’t stop until you are a teenager or so. But it is gravity as a stress that makes the cells in the bones have the right alignment, or stack up properly and pull the bone so that it forms straight. Without gravity, the baby’s bones won’t get long and thin like adult bone. They will be very easy to break, and they won’t grow as fast. This is true for arms and legs.
The bones at the top of the baby’s head will actually grow thicker and stronger than on Earth. This is because your heart does not have to work so hard to move blood and other fluid from your feet to your upper body because there is no gravity. What happens is that the heart still pulls on the fluid in the legs, which now comes out much more easily. This causes the upper body to have more fluid and more pressure, which causes stress. Stress is always what makes bone grow and change. So, more pressure, more growth in the skull.
The bones in the hands will probably be normal because the baby/child/adult will use his hands just like on Earth. The feet will probably not grow much because they don’t get the stress from having the weight of your whole body on them–no stress, not much growth. Ribs are interesting. Ribs protect your lungs and give support to your body so they don’t collapse. They would probably be okay, but develop thinner than on Earth, so they wouldn’t be nearly as strong. The spine is really going to be affected. The gravity won’t push / pull down on you, so the vertebrae don’t feel the stress, so they won’t grow. But they will get stress from the spinal cord as it grows and pushes out. So you would probably end up with thinner, very easily crushed vertebrae.
Muscles work the same way. They need stress to grow and develop. Gravity is a stress force that pulls in one direction causing the muscle to develop in the right shape. So, if it is a muscle that won’t be used much (say, the muscles that move your feet), they won’t grow nearly as strong. Some muscles will be almost the same, such as your hand muscles. They aren’t much affected by gravity–they are more affected by how the other muscles in your hands contract and release. They are stressed independently of gravity. Other muscles, like your heart, will be different. Your heart won’t have to work as hard because there is no gravity to make blood circulation difficult. This takes a while to happen though. With a baby just born, probably the heart will never develop nearly as strong as a baby on Earth will.
Muscles and bones work together. The muscles are attached to bone, and they are very tightly connected. If you exercise a muscle, it pulls on the bone and causes a pulling stress. This helps the bone grow stronger in that area. This is why kids are told to play around outside when they are young–their bones grow very fast and if the child does a lot of exercise, the muscles get strong, making the bone very strong.
So, a baby born in space is going to have pretty strange and weak bones in most parts of their body. This shouldn’t affect them too much if they spend their whole life in space, but they will be in a lot of trouble if they come back to Earth. Their leg and feet bones will be too weak to hold them, the spine will probably crush under its own weight. The heart muscle will not be strong enough to pump blood around the whole body because of gravity pulling the blood down, and leg muscles will be too weak for you to stand. Basically, your bones and muscles will be much too heavy to support, and you will fall down in a big heap and die – (unless the mother is very insistent and special equipment is made so the baby can exercise muscles and bones to make them similar to the ones on Earth -but you still have heart and other things…).
But if you are a baby born in space and someone drops you on your head when you return to Earth, your skull will be nice and thick.
Isn’t bone a really neat thing?