NASA’s latest class of astronauts is 50 percent female. Just like other women, female astronauts menstruate. But what exactly happens when you have your period in space? How do you deal with menstruation on a mission to Mars?
In the early days of space travel, women weren’t allowed to become astronauts, partly because of menstruation and PMS. Putting a ‘hormonal woman’ together with a ‘complicated machine’, was asking for trouble. That, at least, was the conclusion of researchers from the Women In Space Program in 1964.
After the sexism, it was time for hypothetical health risks. Experts feared that lack of gravity would lead to ‘retrograde menstruation’: when menstrual blood flows backwards up the fallopian tubes and into the abdomen. This condition was linked to endometriosis. However, it hasn’t yet happened in space. (Probably because gravity isn’t solely responsible for menstruation; womb contractions are what cause the blood flow.)
During the discussion of whether or not it’d be safe for women to menstruate in space, Rhea Seddon (photo above) one of the first women astronauts at NASA, 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.’ It stayed a non-problem: after over 30 years of female space travel, no menstrual problems have been associated with microgravity. (Photo: Rhea Seddon)
100 tampons per week?
Still, when women were finally allowed to go on space trips, the men at NASA didn’t have a clue what was needed. In preparation for the Challenger mission in 1983, a male engineer asked Sally Ride (photo above), the first American woman in space, if 100 tampons would be the right number for a seven day journey…
Now, they’ve got a supply manifest of feminine hygiene items necessary to deal with zero-G periods. The Principles of Clinical Medicine for Space Flight (2008) state that astronauts have ‘access to multiple sanitary products for menstruation, including pads, mini-pads, and tampons in plain and deodorant versions.’ If that isn’t enough, then there’s always the ‘diaper’ all astronauts wear during launch. This maximum absorbency garment can retain up to 2000ml of urine, faeces, or, of course, blood.
On the pill
Most female astronauts though, prefer to delay their periods until after the space mission. Space gynaecologist Dr. Varsha Jain says about this in Marie Claire: ‘At the moment, the gold standard is the oral contraceptive pill, taken back to back, continuously.’ However, unlike women on Earth, female astronauts don’t take a pill every time the sun rises or sets. When the spacecraft is in orbit, the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes, so they time it on the clock instead.
Seeing as many female astronauts suppress their bleeding, it’ll take a long time before there’s data about spontaneous menstrual cycles in space. A shame, according to internal medicine specialist William D. Rowe who claims menstruating women have a key advantage on these missions. Astronauts in space often have increased iron levels, which can be extremely toxic. Women on their period have lower base levels iron because of their bleeding and are thus less at risk.
Ultimately, the answer to the question ‘what happens when you have your period in space?’ isn’t that exciting. No blood floating around in the space shuttle. Apparently, menstruating in space is the same as menstruating here on Earth. NASA astronaut Rhea Seddon recalls: ‘I’m not totally sure who had the first period in space, but they came back and said, ‘Period in space, just like period on the ground. Don’t worry about it.’