- how an off-Earth base could quickly become self-sufficient -

This page was developed with the assistance of Dr. David Beyda.

When we consider the possibility of the first children in a small, off-Earth colony, a number of ethical issues become apparent. The ultimate goal is to ensure the protection of the children. But to understand the issues, let's first understand the most likely scenario.

The first children to go off Earth will not be those being born off Earth but it will probably start with a wealthy individual wanting to take their children or grandchildren on a suborbital flight (such as from Spaceport America). The ethical issue there is can these (grand)parents and the suborbital company risk the lives of the children in such a risky adventure? For adults, it's OK if they are willing to risk their lives for such an amazing experience. But children are considered too young to be able to understand the risks involved. The solution is probably that children won't be allowed to take such unproven risks until there are enough flights to where the probable risks are considered small enough such that it wouldn't be unreasonable for a parent to risk their child's life by having them participate in such and activity.

For the Moon (or Mars), the situation would probably be similar. Companies providing the flights would probably not be willing to carry children until there had been enough successful flights such than the risk is known to likely be relatively low. And so the first children on the Moon will likely be older teenagers.

Yet the risk of transport isn't the only risk in that situation. If they were going to remain on the Moon for a long period of time they might suffer health consequences as a result of their finishing their growing in a reduced gravity environment (it is assumed that all habitats will be covered with enough lunar dirt such that space radiation isn't a factor). So, prior to the arrival of even older teens, animal studies would need to be conducted to see if there might be health consequences to older juveniles if given some (e.g. 4 hours full) artificial gravity each day.

For reasons of psychology, children need the social interaction of peers near their same age. Yet a small colony growing slowly or naturally might be very limited in terms of the young community available there. But solutions could include providing video telecommunications to kids on Earth. But better still, the growing settlement could plan to hold off on bringing children until the adult population grows to a point where they can bring their children and grand children within a relatively short period of time (e.g. 12 months) so that they end up with a sizeable, instant community of children of various ages. Think of it as a small town with small town dynamics. As children grow up, if they come to desire to leave the lunar community and return to Earth to experience the greater opportunities there, they always can. But there may need to be a formal agreement that, anyone who wishes to return to Earth can do so at no charge. Whether children raised off Earth could return to Earth is addressed below.

But the real sticky issues have to do with the first children being born off Earth. To be clear, the first pregnancy off Earth will likely occur "accidentally" by private couples in a space hotel in low Earth orbit. But they will have returned to Earth before the fetus has much time to grow. So the developmental consequences might well be minimal.

But ultimately, if humanity is to establish an independent foothold off Earth, it will come down to getting pregnant, giving birth, and growing up somewhere out there. How could this be handled ethically?

An initial lunar habitat (e.g. the UniHab) could have an indoor centrifuge providing full gee, artificial gravity primarily for the purpose of maintaining crew health and so extend crew stay. But, while the crew is not using the centrifuge, it could be used for a series of animal studies in an attempt to determine what the artificial gravity prescription is for healthy pregnancy and childhood. This page describes a series of animal models that could most quickly get to the answer (perhaps in 5-10 years).

But say that, after 10 years, the results are that, with 2.7 hours full gee in each morning and 2.7 hours full gee in the evening, higher-level primates can give birth to apparently healthy children. Then using the same protocol, we have primates that were gestated and born on the Moon and are now three years old without significant health consequences. At that point could some human couple on the Moon risk getting pregnant? Whose decision is it to make?

Its highly likely that an ethics committee (including with lay people involvement) will exist and will have looked over the relavant research and be able to weigh in on the question as to what the risks are when it comes to having a child off Earth. But ethics committees typically offer opinions rather than giving recommendations or making decisions. However, if the known consequences to the Moon's 1/6th gravity was so bad that the child would likely have significant consequences then the laws of whatever country the base/settlement was under may deal with the situation similarly to how it now deals with people who knowingly conceive children which will have a severe genetic disorder (e.g. Huntington's disease).

But if the consequences to getting pregnant and using artificial gravity was relatively small, then it would ultimately be up to the parents to decide if they wanted to get pregnant, carry the child to term, give birth, and raise their kids off Earth.

But, if it took five or ten years from when the Initial Crew arrived on the Moon to when the artificial gravity animal studies had been completed, what would prevent any of the crew from accidentally becoming pregnant. Ideally, the Initial Crew, the international crew, and early private settlers would agree to take precautions to not become pregnant until after the animal studies were completed. A combination of vasectomy and preserving sperm and eggs back on Earth would be an effective way of preventing pregnancy while not significantly reducing the ability to become pregnant. But, if settlers were somehow to get pregnant they would probably return to Earth immediately to ensure that their child gestates and grows up in Earth's normal level of gravity.

Wouldn't the first child born off Earth be a complete news sensation? Everyone would know about it and people would want to know its name, gender, and see the picture of this historic event. But, how fair is it to that child to forever be known for this one thing? Perhaps different steps would be taken to protect the privacy of this child.

In the movie, "The Space Between Us" a child is accidentally conceived and grows up in an isolated manner on Mars. He later returns to Earth and falls in love with a girl. Yet his body is not developed to live on Earth and so his health steadily deteriorates. Would this happen in reality? It's hard to say. But such a scenario is something that we know to be on the look out for and it would be unacceptable to lay such a future on a child. If no reasonable amount of artificial gravity could prevent serious consequences to fetuses or growing children then the Moon and/or Mars would be limited to having settlements for adults and would only grow via immigration and not naturally.

If the human body is designed to require full gee 24/7 (and it might) then the vision of human settlements growing naturally on the Moon or Mars may not be realistic. But there is an ultimate fall-back position. O'Neilian colonies are large, spinning colonies in free space. As such, they can provide full artificial gravity and with spin rates low enough such that their settlers would be able to handle any Coriolis effects. If located in equatorial low Earth orbit, they may not need too much shielding either. Such a spinning habitat could also be used by lunar and Martian mothers during pregnancy before returning to their settlement -- true "mother ships".

When it comes to having off-Earth children, there are a number of ethical issues that need to be addressed

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