In his lifetime, SpaceBorn United founder Egbert Edelbroek expects to see ‘hundreds of thousands of babies born in space’ – but first, there are some ethical issues to deal with
As space travel becomes increasingly viable, there’s no shortage of people looking to leave Earth behind, with their sights set on billionaires’ Mars colonies, distant stars, or even just a long weekend in a luxury space hotel. Needless to say, there are plenty of technological hurdles to overcome before we get there – and there’s a very valid argument that our time would be better spent fixing the planet we live on – but enthusiasts suggest that becoming an interplanetary civilisation is key to our survival, and “a crucial step on our path to immortality as a species”.
Of course, the possibility of living off-Earth throws up countless scientific, political, and ethical issues that most of us wouldn’t even consider. How will national and international laws translate into space? How will explorers stake their claim on a new planet (finders keepers?) and how do we avoid a rerun of brutal colonialism? Presumably we’ll want to populate space with more human beings as well, but how can we be sure that altered gravity and radiation beyond our atmosphere won’t have undesirable effects on our space babies?
There are people seeking answers to these questions as we speak. Many of them are linked to Asgardia, the self-described “First Space Nation” founded in 2016. With more than a million members and counting, Asgardia is an international organisation that aims to “unite people in a transnational, equal and progressive society to build a new home for humanity in space” – sounds a bit like the start of a sci-fi cult horror, but what do we know! Apparently, its missions include demilitarising space and developing its own digital currency (to absolutely no one’s surprise), but also the all-important goal of facilitating the first human birth in space.
Asgardia’s aims may seem farfetched, but it isn’t going at it alone. Last year, the Netherlands-based company SpaceBorn United announced plans to send pioneering technology into low Earth orbit, with the aim of conceiving the first animals in space and identifying “morally and biologically sustainable solutions for [human] space births”. The first test flights – which pose plenty of moral questions themselves – are set to take place later this year, with Asgardia’s support.
Speaking to Dazed over Zoom from Eindhoven, SpaceBorn founder and Asgardia MP Egbert Edelbroek explains that the first ARTIS (Assisted Reproductive Technology in Space) test flights will focus on trialling the technology in the company’s unmanned, UFO-shaped “bio-satellites”. Tests involving animal cells will come later (let Elon’s monkeys be a warning) and tests with human cells are still pending regulatory approval. Even with permission to send human eggs and sperm into orbit, IVF procedures will initially be performed in a chamber that simulates Earth-like gravity on the bio-satellite, before the fertilised egg is frozen and sent back to Earth to continue developing. Only then can the company move onto its wilder and more unpredictable experiments. Sounds like a slow process, but SpaceBorn has to be careful. According to them, this is the future of the human race we’re talking about.
Below, Egbert tells us more about his mission to make the first baby in space – from coming up with SpaceBorn while donating sperm, to navigating the incredibly sketchy ethics of creating new life on the final frontier.
Can you tell us a bit about the origins of SpaceBorn United?
Egbert Edelbroek: Part of the origin of Spaceborne United has to do with the fact that I am a sperm donor, [so] I’ve learned quite a bit about IVF technology, and this combined with my passion for space exploration. I started thinking about whether it could be possible to engineer [IVF tech] to make it work in space, to help address the challenge of reproduction.
I learned that it was a very important question that was very difficult for agencies like NASA or ESA to address, because it’s too ethically complicated to spend taxpayer money on. Gradually, it became clear that it would be worthwhile to make this a project and start SpaceBorn United.
What is the project’s end goal, and how far along is it at the moment?
Egbert Edelbroek: Humanity needs to address the reproduction challenge, we need to learn how we can safely reproduce beyond Earth. That could be in any kind of habitat, in orbit, and eventually, probably also on Mars. There are a lot of plans from space agencies and companies like SpaceX to prepare for permanent human settlements on Mars, and the key difference [compared to] Earth is gravity. The gravity level on Mars, for example, is around 39 per cent of what we are used to on Earth. We don’t know if that gravity level will be sufficient for healthy living, but most experts expect that adults will be fine. They will adjust. But when you look at developing embryos, foetuses, babies, children, that might be a different story.
So that is our focus, to study partial gravity effects on developing embryos, and you don’t want to test this on Mars – that would be super time-consuming and ethically irresponsible and expensive. Especially because we can safely study this close to Earth, in unmanned bio-satellites, like the ones we are working with. It’s very cost-effective. Of course, starting with animal embryos and proving the technology is safe, proving that the embryos are no different from Earthbound embryos, and then getting the regulatory approval for going a step further, perhaps with human stem cell embryos. Or maybe we have to first work with other more complex mammalian embryos, we’ll have to see.
There are some obvious ethical concerns surrounding conception in space, and bringing those foetuses back to Earth without knowing how they’ll be affected.
Egbert Edelbroek: I’m not an ethical expert, but we have ethical experts in the team and external experts that we talk to. The ethical issues usually centre on potential suffering. There’s a very biological, scientific approach to this that focuses on the suffering in a five-day-old embryo [that] does not have any nerve tissue yet, so it’s not even capable of suffering. But as soon as it seems perfectly safe to place those embryos back into the uterus and develop into babies, there’s so much more potential for suffering. So there are a lot of ethical implications there.
It’s much more relevant to look at the potential suffering for babies that have grown and become a child after being conceived in space. You need to be absolutely sure that the risks are zero, or very very close to zero. There’s also a potential that exposing embryos to a different environment can trigger positive changes – epigenetic triggers that might even unlock hidden human potential. It might also unlock advantages that result in improving IVF treatments [back on Earth].
What if the potential benefits aren’t worth the potential suffering?
Egbert Edelbroek: We don’t feel it’s up to us to decide on this. It’s up to ethical committees. I personally see there are very big opportunities, if we address the reproduction challenge, if we enable humanity to become a multi-planetary species, if we enable the human species to further diversify. I believe it’s worth enabling our children to explore new worlds.
And there are some risks to life on Earth. Becoming multi-planetary also addresses some of those risks. But mainly we focus on enabling the further development of the human species, the enabling of exploring new habitats, and the scientific spin-offs that usually come from those endeavours.
“I believe it’s worth enabling our children to explore new worlds” – Dr. Egbert Edelbroek
Is there a projected timeline for creating human embryos, or more complex mammalian embryos, in space? Are regulators the only thing standing in the way?
Egbert Edelbroek: We have experts in our team that predict we will get regulatory approval. Of course, we have to prove that our technology works well enough first. We have a timeline that various experts believe would be feasible after a sub-orbital test flight this year: next year, we are aiming for an orbital flight, a five to six-day mission with an unmanned bio-satellite carrying samples of mouse sperm. Then, because we’re working with a lot of new systems, we assume that we will need a second tech demo mission in which we can optimise all these new systems. We are not entirely sure that we can include the stage of cryogenically freezing the embryos in the first mission. That might not be very smart.
Two [five to six day] missions should be enough to prove that our technology is working well, and that the embryos are healthy. Then we assume we can get regulatory approval for working with human stem cell embryos. That will be a different type of mission. The human stem cell embryos will hopefully be ride-sharing, so they could be on board a rocket that goes to the International Space Station or something similar.
For now, you’re focusing on IVF – does sex-based reproduction in space pose its own issues?
Egbert Edelbroek: We aim to enable natural reproduction in space, but the technological, biomedical maturity of this domain is way too young to facilitate this in a safe way. There are actually risks involved with upcoming space tourism, especially orbital space tourism, where people will stay inside space hotels. That will probably be a strong magnet for all kinds of couples, and upcoming space nations could even send couples to try to have the very first naturally conceived baby in space. But there are quite a few medical and ethical risks to this. We’re actually working on an article with Cranfield University and Professor David Cullen, and some of our experts, to make the [space hotel] sector aware of these issues, because nobody seems to be addressing it and preparing for it.
Finally, what stage would you like to see the technology you’re pioneering reach by the end of your lifetime?
Egbert Edelbroek: Well, let’s start with estimating the end of my life. World-class experts believe children that are born today will, on average, be around 140 when they die. I wasn’t born yesterday, so I’m expecting to live to about 110. That gives us some 60 years...
Well, I think we should have hundreds of thousands of babies born in space by then. I also predict that genetic engineering will have been implemented for several decades, and that will turn the world upside down. I think we will be able to change the human genome for those who want to, for example, enable hibernation, and send them for hundreds of years to other star systems, enhance radiation resistance, etc. This is what I have to say about that in the next five or six decades.