This Is What It's Like To Have A Period In Space
The Debrief: In the early days of space travel, a lot of people struggled with the idea of a menstruating astronaut in zero gravity
To date, 58 women have been to space (compared to 477 men, as of 2014). The first ever woman to go to space was Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut, in 1963 who reportedly forgot to take her toothbrush with her.
One question that’s long troubled everyone is how periods work when there's zero gravity. In the early days of space travel, a lot of people struggled with the idea of a menstruating astronaut. According to NPR, in 1964, researchers from the Women in Space Program suggested (on zero evidence, obv) that putting 'a temperamental psychophysiologic human', in other words a 'hormonal woman' together with a 'complicated machine' was a bad idea. OK then.
NPR also cites a rather shocking 1971 NASA report in which it was discussed whether it actually would be good to have a woman on board, but not for their skill or their expertise. No. For a sexual purporse. Researchers said:
'The question of direct sexual release on a long-duration space mission must be considered. Practical considerations (such as weight and expense) preclude men taking their wives on the first space flights. It is possible that a woman, qualified from a scientific viewpoint, might be persuaded to donate her time and energies for the sake of improving crew morale; however, such a situation might create interpersonal tensions far more dynamic than the sexual tensions it would release.'
Gross. One of the researchers has been questioned about this since and said it was 'tongue-in-cheek' and part of a larger discussion about sexual desire in space.
There were also concerns that being in space could cause blood to accumulate in the abdomen, rather than typically flowing out, although there was (still is) no evidence to support this. Basically, periods are the same in space as they are on earth.
Rhea Seddon was one of the first female NASA astonauts and said of the discussion around periods and space travel at the time that '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. Then we'll deal with it as a problem, but let's consider it a non-problem."' Which makes a hell of a lot of sense considering that so much was unknown about space travel at the time, not just how periods worked.
To further investigate menstruation in space and the best ways to 'deal' with it, Dr Varsha Jain and Virginia E Wotring conducted a study into ‘Medically induced amenorrhea in female astronauts’ (i.e. stopping usual menstruation using the pill or something similar) which was published last week.
Whilst it’s easier to cope with periods during short missions – missions can be timed so menstruation won’t take place during that time or cycles can be shifted in advance – but long-duration missions will often require suppressions. However it does say that ‘full amenities are available should astronauts choose to menstruate’, but for various reasons, it will usually be that women would rather opt for supressing it.
Apparently the waste disposal systems in place on space crafts ‘were not designed to handle menstrual blood’ and then there’s the issue of personal hygiene because of the limited water supply and the logistical side of changing sanitary products.
Typically the combined pill, which is taken for 21 days followed by a seven day break, has been used to suppress the period by continuing to take it throughout the seven days but there are limitations for this such as breakthrough bleeding and that a three year mission would require around 1100 pills and taking the pill every day. There's also the fact that the safety and effect of the pill over this amount of time and in such an environment, has not been studied: ‘Drug stability has not been tested for hormonal medications over such a long time in space or with the impact of deep-space radiation’.
Looking at other methods of supression, the hormonal coil and the implant were cited as the best options because of their longevity (up to five years and up to three years, respectively) but they did mention one potential issue with the implant: it could ‘rub or catch on specialist equipment or attire such as the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory diving suit or the extra-vehicular activity suit’.
They also calculated the potential amount of menstrual suppression that a woman may require, including candidate selection, astronauts training and awaiting mission selection. In total they estimated that it could be as much as 11 years.
Interestingly the authors found that modern women in industrialized countries have much more mental cycles than those in pre-historic times: we have around 450 ovulations per life now compared to 160 then. This is down to various things like living shorter lives, having more children, have children earlier.
As the study said, further investigation into long-term birth control and space travel is definitely needed to ensure that women have the same opportunites as men when it comes to space travel and that their health isn't compromised in the process.
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