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Tiangong experiment: Can animals have sex in space?

Chinese experiment has evoked concern and outrage among scientists and animal lovers alike

By Kiran N. Kumar

A Chinese experiment to send monkeys into space and observe whether they could have sex, conceive and sustain pregnancy in space environment with microgravity has evoked concern and outrage among scientists and animal lovers alike.

In the past, several experiments have been attempted to test pregnant animals in space such as salamanders, fish and rats with little success but undaunted, China is keen to send monkeys to its Tiangong space station in orbit, to see whether or not they are naturally able to have sex and conceive.

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“Some studies involving mice and macaques will be carried out to see how they grow or even reproduce in space. These experiments will help improve our understanding of an organism’s adaptation to microgravity and other space environments,” Zhang Lu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told South China Morning Post recently.

This is not the first time researchers are contemplating to send animals into space for reproductive study. Earlier, Soviet researchers had sent rats into space for an 18-day mating experiment in a “mating chamber” and found that they appeared to have had sex in space though none of the females successfully gave birth.

What began as an exploration of space in 1783 by the Montgolfier brothers when they had sent a sheep, a duck, and a rooster aloft in a hot air balloon to see if ground-dwelling animals can survive, the experiments retain the value of understanding the animal behavior in space, bereft of any concern for their pain and suffering.

The United States in 1947 had sent fruit flies into space followed by a variety of species including mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, frogs, goldfish and monkeys to heights of up to 44,000 meters.

Several high-altitude balloon flights between 1947 and 1960 tested radiation exposure, physiological response, life support and recovery systems but the latest plan by Chinese scientists to send monkeys into space to have sex comes as a shocker to many.

The idea has already irked some scientists. “The act of having sex in zero gravity could be quite difficult,” Adam Watkins, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, told Newsweek.

“From the lack of privacy to the fact that getting an erection in space is more difficult than here on earth due to the blood pressure changes that occur.”

But the fact never barred such experiments. “It’s one thing to get animals pregnant in space, it’s much harder to keep them pregnant,” Watkins reminds Chinese scientists.

The stress of space journey could deter their health to stay pregnant. The embryos in mice failed to develop in zero gravity, leave alone undergoing genetic abnormalities, he warned.

Unlike on Earth, there is no shield from the radiation coming from the sun and exposure to cosmic rays which damage cells in any animal, including the delicate embryos. A known fact that never deterred the Chinese space scientists.

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PETA reacts
Despite learning the atmospheric and radiation effects on animals in space, sending monkeys to have sex is in space has outraged Lisa Jones-Engel, a primate scientist and advisor at PETA, who called it a cruel and insensitive experiment.

“There is no point in studying monkey reproduction in space, and it would be unspeakably cruel to these sensitive, social animals,” she told Newsweek. “They aren’t breeding machines.”

But man’s desire to colonize other worlds can sustain only if we are able to reproduce. Understanding how sex and reproduction do, and don’t in space will be vital to establish human populations outside of planet Earth, defend some space scientists. But at what cost?

PETA has repeatedly condemned cruelty against animals being sent into space for whatever study scientists may wish to undertake. After the 2020 documentary on the story of Laika, a stray dog who died a horrific death aboard Sputnik 2 after being blasted into space more than 60 years ago was released, PETA hoped for “ethical treatment” to percolate down to space labs as well.

Read: China Wants To Send Monkeys to Tiangong Space Station For Sex (November 9, 2022)

Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who worked with dogs in the space program, later admitted that “the more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it. We shouldn’t have done it.”

In 1996, PETA successfully campaigned to get NASA to pull out of Bion — a joint US, French, and Russian experiment in which scientists forced monkeys into straitjackets and implanted electrodes in their bodies before launching them into space.

However, rats, mice, primates, fish, turtles, and other animals are still being sent into space. Ethics apart, until the day humans themselves are sent into space for sex, experiments on animals are here to stay. And China’s mission for animal reproduction in space is no exception.

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