Is space the final frontier? Honestly, I doubt it. If history has taught us anything, humanity’s final frontier might just be the uterus. After all, over a decade after putting a man on the moon, NASA still hadn’t managed to do the math on how many tampons a menstruating person might use.
In 1983, Dr. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. While preparing for her mission, NASA wasn’t quite sure how many tampons she might need during the week she would be in space.
“Is 100 the right number?,” they asked her.
“No. That would not be the right number,” she replied.
(For those with inquiring minds, they could have easily cut that number in half and Dr. Ride would have had more than enough tampons to see her through a particularly intense cycle. In the event that they ran into some aliens, she likely would have still had enough to give each one a tampon as a fun Earth souvenir.)
Dr. Ride’s experience was by no means unique. Throughout the 20th century, wild, limitless dreams of exploration and flight were cruelly juxtaposed with the social boundaries based in gender, sex, and racial discrimination. Flying across the ocean was one thing. Having a woman, who might just be in possession of two plump ovaries, fly across an ocean was another thing entirely.
These ideas persisted, despite the fame and success of pilots like Bessie Coleman or Amelia Earhart. During World War II, women became pilots for the US military for the first time. Known as The Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP), these women flew military planes domestically, hauling goods and testing planes. The Army Air Force (AAF) had many reservations about permitting women to fly, not least of which was the potential effects menstruation might have on their performance. What if they went period-crazy and crashed a plane into a bird sanctuary because they hated men and also wanted chocolate? It hadn’t happened yet, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t.
The AAF originally required WASP members to report when they menstruated. Not only would they be restricted from flying while menstruating, but they would also be grounded for several days before and after. Of course, the AAF soon discovered that it would take an impractical level of intrusion and effort to enforce this rule. WASP members were also not too keen on complying with this baseless requirement. They routinely told physicians that their menstrual cycles were “highly irregular.”
Reports submitted about these pilots indicated that there was no observable effect of the menstrual cycle on their performance. The lessons learned during the short-lived WASP program were quickly forgotten by the powers that be, however. In the 1959, NASA began to test and train their first class of astronauts.
In 1960, the first group of American women astronauts were tested, and 13 women passed through the first phase of testing. Unfortunately, the program was shut down and they were not allowed to finish their testing. Despite the data demonstrating their fitness, and the successful mission of Soviet astronaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963, these women were again subjected to speculation about how their menstrual cycle might affect their abilities. In the 1964 report about the hopeful astronauts, the authors worried that it might be difficult to navigate “the intricacies of matching a temperamental psychophysiologic human and the complicated machine.” In other words, what were they going to do when these ladies went period-crazy in space and forgot how to fly that rugged, masculine rocket?
There was one, somewhat reasonable concern about the direction of actual menstrual flow, as there are demonstrable effects of microgravity on the flow of blood. On earth, our hearts have to work hard and fight gravity in order to pump blood throughout the body. In microgravity, the heart doesn’t need to work as hard, and blood and other fluids tend to pool in the upper body. Some at NASA were worried that, without the pull of gravity, menstrual flow might also travel upwards and into the abdomen. However, menstruation and the regular goings-on of the circulatory system are significantly different processes, and this turned out to be a non-issue.
It’s easy to forgive NASA for being unsure of how microgravity might affect menstruation. After all, we haven’t really been going to space for that long. It’s less easy to forgive the hordes of scientific minds who somehow thought all women go completely mad once a month, as women have been living on earth and not doing that for quite some time now. Thankfully, astronauts and pilots who menstruate are now much more involved in the conversations and planning regarding their own bodies and well-being. There’s still a great number of wild dreams to pursue and explore, both among the stars and within the uterus.
Author’s note: This article clearly deals with a particular flavor of discrimination often directed at women who menstruate. However, I want to acknowledge the fact that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.
For more information:
A Brief History of Menstruating in Space from PopSci
Why Women Weren’t Allowed to Be Astronauts from The Atlantic
Women Astronauts: To Menstruate or Not to Menstruate from The Atlantic
Flying While Female from Air & Space Magazine
Additional sources used for this article:
Pushing the Envelope: The Woman Airforce Service Pilots and American Society by Katherine Elizabeth Landdeck
The Mercury 13 by Martha Ackmann