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Houston, there’s no problem: the truth about menstruation in space

Menstruation may still be a thorny topic for discussion in the workplace even now, but imagine being the first woman ever to do your job. For the first female astronauts, periods were an even trickier subject to broach with their almost all-male colleagues at NASA.

Even in industries where female co-workers are far more common, men have on the whole been “spared” the awkwardness of the realities of menstruation. After all, the social stigmas surrounding openly discussing periods are often even stronger with regards to discussing them with men. Unfortunately, the realities of space flight mandate living in close quarters for days, weeks or even years and when the first women went up into space, navigating these uncomfortable conversations was a necessity.  

Menstruation in space – the early days.

Much to the amusement of women everywhere, NASA’s male astronauts and engineers seemed confused by the prospect of what a female astronaut would need to take with her into space. Where it was obvious to them that men would need to bring a shaving kit, for example, they had no idea what a woman would carry.

At the top of the list of feminine items that made NASA’s cohort uncomfortable were , of course, tampons. When Sally Ride became the first woman to travel into space, scientists were cautious about how to approach to tampon situation.

Among their concerns were how much the tampons would weigh during spaceflight, and the question of using oderized or deodorized varieties was even discussed to determine whether the smell would not be too strong in the confined space of the space shuttle for prolonged periods of time.

Despite their attempts  to be as accommodating as possible to the possibility of menstruation during a mission, male engineers were still clearly out of their comfort zone. During an interview, Ride commented on engineers’ decision-making process as they tries to figure out how many tampons she would need for a 6 day flight:

“Is 100 the right number?” they asked

“No. That would not be the right number.”

They said, “Well, we want to be safe.”

I said, “Well, you can cut that in half with no problem at all.”

Women and machinery do not mix!

However, there is a slightly less comical side to the discourse surrounding female menstruation in space. In the early days of space flight, menstruation was considered a genuine reason to make women unsuitable to be astronauts, no matter how physically fit the woman.

In 1964, a women’s space flight programme ran, but was soon terminated. Shortly after, a report was published, giving details into the reasons why female space flight was  deemed unsuitable. The report clearly places emphasis on a woman’s menstrual cycle putting into question whether a she was suitable to work in space.

In the author’s words, the concern was in “matching a temperamental psychophysiologic human and the complicated machine”. The difficulties, they claimed, “are many and, obviously, both need to be ready at the same time.”

In other words, NASA was not entirely comfortable with the concept of a “hormonal” woman in spaceflight and doubted her ability to handle her emotions during missions. Unfortunately, this concept was not unique to spaceflight; just two decades prior, female pilots were blamed for several plane crashes due to their menstrual cycle affecting their ability to handle heavy machinery.

The taboo concerning open communication about the realities of the female experience during menstruation is, unfortunately, a tale as old as time.

Is it safe?

One of the more understandable concerns held by NASA scientists was whether it was safe for a woman to have a period in space. After all, in such a punishing environment, the human body goes through many changes, including a weakening of the immune system, as well as physical changes to your bones and organs. And in an environment where gravity is almost non-existent, it is easy to assume that the human body would be unable to expel blood in the usual way. .

Scientists coined the term “retrograde menstruation”, during which they feared blood may flow into the fallopian tubes and abdomen, causing serious health problems for the female astronauts.

However, this remains merely a hypothesis, and there is fortunately no medical evidence to support this. The male scientist’s fears were based upon their knowledge of how the cardiovascular system was affected during spaceflight; that is, the lack of gravity causes blood to pool in the upper body and head. The key difference here is the fact that menstruation is caused by hormones, rather than by a system of arteries and veins.

These issues weren’t the only practical concerns with sending women into space, unfortunately. On Earth, we at least have the facilities available to dispose of tampons and sanitary products safely and cleanly.

On board a spacecraft, however, the waste disposal systems are designed to reclaim water from urine and were simply not built to handle menstrual blood. And although maintaining good personal hygiene during menstruation may be second nature when there’s gravity to hand, it’s not so easy in microgravity when there is a limited water supply.

To menstruate or not to menstruate?

Although it may be  perfectly safe, medically speaking, for women to menstruate while on missions, it is understandable why many female astronauts opt for medically induced amenorrhea. In other words, voluntarily hormonally suppressing their periods.

Although some polls suggest that up to a third of women feel the need to have a period because it feels “natural”, the good news is that these days all women have the freedom of choice as to whether they wish to menstruate. Many women, particularly those in high-pressure jobs or positions that keep them in isolated conditions for prolonged periods of time (such as the military), opt for this method in order to avoid the discomforts that can come with menstruating.

For female astronauts there are many different options available, although some may be more suitable than others for prolonged space flight.

There’s a pill for that

The progesterone-only pill (POP), more commonly known as “the pill” is an extremely popular contraceptive choice amongst women around the world, as it prevents bleeding. Though it may be popular on Terra Firma,, female astronauts could find difficulties using this method in space flight. Firstly, it is said that only about 50% of women who take the POP will experience amenorrhea; not a very promising statistic if the intention is not to bleed at all during spaceflight.

Even if this method was guaranteed to prevent bleeding, storing the pill on board a space shuttle could become an issue. While a 6 day flight would not demand a large amount of contraception, a three-year mission to Mars, for example, would mean about 1,100 pills would need to be brought on board.

Not only is that a large amount of weight for a space shuttle, but there are currently no conclusive tests to ascertain the sustainability of such a large amount of drugs for such a long time. This does not even take into consideration the impact that travelling across different time zones would have upon the strict time frame in which the POP must be taken in order to be effective.

LARCing about

Long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) such as the contraceptive implant or the IUD (“the coil”) are highly popular amongst female astronauts. Both methods are said to have comparable rates of success of amenorrhea as the POP, but have the added benefit of longevity and reliability.

The implant, for example, only needs to be replaced once every three years and the IUD every five. However, the effects of both these methods are better judged in the long-run, and it is advisable to have a LARC inserted at least 1.5-2 years before a flight to judge side effects and bleeding patterns.  

The importance of choice

Effective communication and education are two of the most important ways to allow women equal opportunities, no matter what their chosen career. Although we may have moved on from the period (no pun intended) of time when men were perplexed by the notion of menstruation and women were thought to be unstable as a result of their hormones, cultural stigma has still not been completely eradicated.

Whether female astronauts (and this is true of all women) feel most comfortable menstruating, even under the harsh conditions of spaceflight, or choose to medically induce amenorrhea through their chosen method, allowing them the freedom and choices to make these decisions is vital.

Having a period, whether in space or here on Earth, is not a problem. And allowing women the space to be open and honest about their experiences with menstruation is a vital step to normalising this process and improve the lives of women all over the world … or out of this world.

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