The Challenges of Having Children in Space
Tech titans like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk want human beings to move off-planet, but reproducing away from Earth could be incredibly difficult
The romantic lure of space travel runs deep. It’s difficult not to look up at a sparkling night sky and wonder what it might be like to pass beyond the confines of the Earth. It’s not just science fiction — plans to colonize the moon and Mars are spreading throughout the private space industry. Jeff Bezos — who funds the rocket company Blue Origin — recently unveiled his ambitions to one day build floating space stations called O’Neill colonies. But there is one thing that is rarely discussed when we dream about a new life in the off-world colonies: what would life be like for the children.
To look deeper into this issue, Michael Oman-Reagan space anthropologist and Vanier scholar at Memorial University recently published a paper in the journal Futures where he delved into the story of a young child named David Vetter, otherwise known as “the bubble boy.” Vetter was born with a rare genetic disease called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) that meant his immune system was so weak his body was always susceptible to infection. To stay safe, from the moment of his birth he had to be kept inside a sterilized plastic enclosure, to avoid exposure to germs.
For Oman-Reagan, Vetter was the closest thing to a proxy for what life in the alien environment of space or another planet might be like.“I started to think about what his life was like in isolation and how it would be a lot like the lives of the first generation of children on Mars or even on a space station or any space settlement,” he says. “Because the environment would be deadly. He was born into a world that was toxic to him.” Even Elton John sang, “Mars ain’t no place to raise your kids.”
If we were to move to Mars or the moon, and wanted to stay there permanently, children would inevitably have to be a part of any settlement — whether as voyagers themselves, or after settlement. How would we keep them safe? What kind of life would they live? Adults would have context for why they must be kept in a protective space suit at all times, but a child born on another planet would know nothing else. The air and environment would be deadly to them, relegating them to live a life not unlike that of David Vetter.
As it happens, Vetter was kept alive by NASA technology. The chamber design originally built to house and protect moon rocks also isolated Vetter from the microbial dangers of the outside world. “His life wound up being wrapped up in a bunch of technology — specifically NASA technology,” says Oman-Reagan.
“That life of suffering really struck me as a way to think about children and what their life might be like on a Mars settlement.”
In 1977, engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center custom-built Vetter a spacesuit that would allow him to walk around outside of his enclosure. And while he only used the spacesuit a handful of times before his death in 1984, he was enthralled by going to space.
At the same, Oman-Reagan argues, “[Vetter] was really more imprisoned by this technology that NASA made for him to move around. That life of suffering really struck me as a way to think about children and what their life might be like on a Mars settlement.”
The quality of life issue raises some ethical questions about not whether it’s right to have children in space, but whether we should bring them there in the first place. If we have long-term plans of moving humankind off-world, how do we consider the lives of future generations? Even the now defunct Mars One colonization project officially advised against having children on Mars for many years, until adults could adjust to living in a deadly environment. But the discussion of having children on other worlds circles back to the same issues that exist on the Earth. What will health care be like on Mars? What if a child is born with a genetic abnormality like David Vetter — or if such a problem were detected early, what will the rights of women be to have an abortion?
Despite the complications of raising children, or even having babies on Mars or the moon, it’s worth it to consider those problems now, even though space colonization is decades or longer away. “I think because space is such a great way to get people excited about the future, it’s a really good way to talk about the kind of future we want and what we would need to do to actually make that happen,” says Oman-Reagan. “If we’re going to talk about children in space what we’re really talking about his children here today.”
By imagining settlements in space, we are not only reexamining what it means to live here on Earth, but also looking forward to the future we might want for our children — even if it’s on another planet hundreds of years from now.