We may be a spacefaring species, but only a tiny vanguard have actually explored beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Fewer than 700 people have flown in space, and the vast majority of those have been white men with a military background, screened for health and skills. But astronauts’ demographics are rapidly changing. Commercial space companies have sent space tourists on suborbital and orbital space flights, such as the all-civilian men and women of the SpaceX Inspiration 4 mission. Multiple companies plan to launch private space stations after the International Space Station is retired. NASA, meanwhile, has promised that a woman will be the first astronaut to set foot on the moon again when the Artemis III mission lands on the lunar south pole. And, in subsequent missions, the space agency plans to build long-term habitats on the moon.
With more humans headed to space than ever, there’s an opportunity for all kinds of medical scenarios to crop up—especially those that haven’t occurred among the previous cadre of professional astronauts. Space travelers could have heart attacks, suffer traumatic injuries, or, as a result of one of the most human of activities, become pregnant.
“It’s not a question of if, but when,” says physician Emmanuel Urquieta, the chief medical officer at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine. The problem, he says, is that the small sample of humans who have flown in space provides very little knowledge of how average body will respond to long-term flights. That goes double for conception, pregnancy, and the delivery of a baby, where there is no human spaceflight data at all. Numerous factors such as low gravity and high radiation are thought to pose risks to the healthy development of a fetus or the birth of a child.
[Related: Space changes your brain in bigger ways than we thought]
These aren’t simply academic gaps to fill. “If we’re…