Of all the things NASA has sent to the International Space Station, sperm is probably the weirdest by far. Yes, the space agency actually launched sperm in outer space, but for a good reason.
NASA Micro-11 Mission
As part of a mission called Micro-11, which actually began back in April 1, NASA sent frozen human and bull sperm to the ISS via a Falcon 9 rocket. There, crew members are tasked to thaw said sperm specimen, chemically activate them, and prepare their union with an egg. Astronauts will also record a video of the whole procedure to track the movements of the sperm. Then they'll send whatever data they collect back to Earth.
In an interview with Inverse, Fathi Karouia, of NASA's space biology unit, assumes that the lack of gravity activates sperm mobility.
"This flight project is the first to apply proven analytical methods to assess the fertility of human and bovine sperm in spaceflight."
Actually, this isn't the first time NASA has sent sperm up in space, but this new experiment could help pave the way for brand-new insights into the effects of long-term spaceflight to the process of human reproduction. With increasing inroads toward space exploration and more comprehensive attempts to study how humans can conquer another planet, it seems only natural to begin looking into how fertilization would work in microgravity.
Why Does NASA Need To Study This?
Imagine, for instance, that humans have finally learned how to travel to faraway planets, trips that would take years and years to complete. Within that span of time, people will most likely feel the urge to have intercourse in space, and scientists need to know whether conceiving life is possible in outer space.
"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," according to NASA.
NASA still doesn't know how long-duration spaceflight affects human reproduction, and the Micro-11 mission will serve as one of the first attempts to understand how differently biology functions in space.
If Earth hopes one day to colonize Mars, it is crucial to learn now whether reproductive health can persist in non-Earth environments. It is a small, even seemingly odd mission when you think about it, but a closer look will help you realize that this mission is one of the few important first steps in ensuring the human race continues.