NPR’s Adam Cole had the opportunity to interview 3 woman astronauts about their experiences at the space station. What was the question that got asked most frequently? A very informative article on NPR’s website reveals that overwhelmingly, that question was: “what happens when you get your period in space?” In fact, the question was so loaded with historical baggage, that Mr. Cole didn’t ask it (although he does provide the answer in the end), and instead, the article explores the history of how that question has directly impacted the participation of women in space exploration:
First, a little history. In the early days of space flight, menstruation was part of the argument for why women shouldn’t become astronauts.
Some claimed that menstruation would affect a woman’s ability and blamed several plane crashes on menstruating women. Studies in the 1940s showed this was not the case. Female pilots weren’t impaired by their periods. But the idea wouldn’t die.
In 1964, researchers from the Women in Space Program still suggested (without evidence) that putting “a temperamental psychophysiologic human” (i.e., a hormonal woman) together with a “complicated machine” was a bad idea. (Evidently the Soviets struggled with this, too.)
Others raised concerns about hypothetical health risks.
They feared that microgravity might increase the incidence of “retrograde menstruation.” Blood might flow up the fallopian tubes into the abdomen, causing pain and other health problems. No one actually did any experiments to see if this really would be a problem, so there weren’t any data to support or refute these fears.
The lack of any kind of data to bar women from spaceflight had advocates argue that women should be allowed to participate until there was any proof that there really might be some kind of issue. The article continues:
Advocates for women in space argued that there had been a lot of unknowns when humans first went to space, but they sent men up anyway. Rhea Seddon, one of the first six female astronauts at NASA, recalled during an interview:
“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.’ “
That makes a lot of sense. After all, how is it really different to send men into space without knowing how microgravity will affect their physiology? The article goes into more detail regarding how the men running the space program in the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s had their biases when it came to sending women to space. In retrospect, those biases seem pretty ridiculous now.
Ok, but you’re probably still wondering what the answer to the question really is, right? Well, it turns out that the answer is pretty boring, as Mr. Cole’s thoughtful article concludes:
So what does happen when you get your period in space?
The same thing that happens on Earth! In the past three decades of female space flight, periods in space have been normal — no menstrual problems in microgravity.
Pretty crazy how simple the answer really is, but it turns out that, just like men, women’s biological functions continue pretty normally in the microgravity of the space station. So, now you know.
Source: NPR.org – “What Happens When You Get Your Period In Space?“
Photo Credit: NASA