How do female astronauts have periods in space?
Sally Ride had probably one of the most famous periods in the world. When she was getting ready to become the first American women to go to space in 1983, the great debate came down to her monthly cycle. What was the major engineering conundrum? Tampons. More specifically, how many tampons and what kind would a woman need for a week in space – they wanted to pack 100.
With NASA’s first all-female spacewalk taking over the news the question has started to pop up again. How do female astronauts have periods in space?
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Today marks the first #AllWomanSpacewalk in human history! ??? ?? @NASAAstronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir successfully completed a 7-hour, 17-minute excursion outside of the International Space Station (@ISS) to replace a failed power controller and accomplish ‘get ahead’ tasks in preparation for future spacewalks. It was the first spacewalk for @Astro_Jessica and the fourth for @Astro_Christina, who now has spent a total of 27 hours and 48 minutes spacewalking. Their tasks set the stage for our #Artemis missions where history will be made once again when the first woman steps foot on the Moon. Credit: NASA #NASA #spacewalk #SpaceStation #STEM #space #WhoRunTheWorld #inspiration
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Women having their periods in zero gravity broke the minds of the most accomplished male scientists at NASA. Nobody knew if men’s testicles would explode the closer they got to the Sun and yet, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin hurtled through the darkness to become the first human in space. The usual sexist tropes were thrown around – questions surrounding their mental capabilities (or inabilities), being emotional wrecks during their period. Would they be able to even function properly if they got their period in space? Would the blood flow upwards into the fallopian tubes and their uteruses break?!
Astronaut Rhea Seddon, who was part of the first group to include women, recalls the conversation around periods in space in the medical team at NASA. “A lot of people predicted [the] retrograde flow of menstrual blood, and it would get out in your abdomen, get peritonitis, and horrible things would happen. All the women were going, ‘I don’t think so.’ But you couldn’t prove it or disprove it.”
“We were asked, ‘What do we do about this?’ We said, ‘How about we just consider it a non-problem until it becomes a problem? If anybody gets sick in space, you can bring us home,’” she recalls in an interview for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.
It turns out menstruating in a space shuttle hundreds of thousands of kilometres away from home is the same as ‘accidentally’ getting your period when you sneeze too hard while watching Dangal in the theatre and then ask the unknown lady next to you if she has a sanitary pad (true story, and she did).
The question comes down to proper disposal of sanitary waste, especially for long space journeys. Most female astronauts opt, instead, to induce amenorrhea. That is, suppress their periods by taking birth control pills. In 2016 Space Gynaecologist Dr Varsha Jain published a study along with pharmacologist Virginia E Wotring about medically-induced amenorrhea in female astronauts, deeming it safe to use the pill as well as contraceptive implants and IUDs.
Turns out menstruating in space is not as macabre as one would imagine. There’s no blood levitating out of a menstrual cup nor are there tampons floating around terrorising other astronauts. A bloody horror show mostly likely doesn’t even occur, so we leave it to your imagination.