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Author Topic:   Spaceflight, female astronauts and menstruation

Posts: 2212
From: Worcestershire, England, UK.
Registered: Apr 2008

posted 08-25-2012 08:04 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Tykeanaut   Click Here to Email Tykeanaut     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
A delicate and sensitive subject I know. But are any allowances made for female astronauts when scheduling flights?

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 42988
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 08-25-2012 08:12 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The topic of menstrual cycles and spaceflight are common enough that the Canadian Space Agency includes it as a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) on their website:
Do female astronauts get their period in space?

Yes, female astronauts get their period in space just like they do on Earth, and no menstrual problems have been associated with living in microgravity. In the early years of human spaceflight, some worried that women would not have their periods safely in microgravity. They thought that microgravity might cause menstrual fluid to travel upwards into the body instead of out of it - also called retrograde menstrual flow. This would mean that blood would flow from the uterine cavity into the fallopian tubes and then into the pelvis and abdomen, causing pain and increasing the risk for endometriosis. While this has not been observed in past space missions, more studies are needed to better understand how the body works and reacts to microgravity.

Former NASA astronaut Rhea Seddon also addressed the question in a May 2010 oral history for Johnson Space Center's History Office.
Was there ever any discussion about menstruation and flying in space when you were in the office?

There was concern about it. It was one of those unknowns. A lot of people predicted 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 nonproblem 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 nonproblem." They did. 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." I think the big controversy was about — and a lot of the women disagreed — how many feminine hygiene products do you put [onboard].

Of course the more you put, the less room you have in your drawer for your clothes and stuff. Or in a drawer. I don't even remember where they put it. I helped make that decision with the docs. We had to do worst case. Tampons or pads, how many would you use if you had a heavy flow, five days or seven days of flow. Because we didn't know how it would be different up there. What's the max that you could use?

Most of the women said, "I would never, ever use that many." "Yes, but somebody else might. You sure don't want to be worried about do I have enough." So it was like, "Uh." The men were all, "Oh man, that's a lot of stuff!" I don't know; it was another one of those issues that was really kind of a nonissue.

How much did you end up putting on board? Do you recall?

I don't remember. It was probably — because we included both pads and tampons — probably at least twice as many as someone would use, and then probably 50 percent more than that just in case. It was a big wad of stuff.


Posts: 1031
From: The Netherlands
Registered: Jan 2003

posted 08-25-2012 09:41 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for hoorenz   Click Here to Email hoorenz     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
There is a similar passage in Sally Ride's oral history.
I remember the engineers trying to decide how many tampons should fly on a one-week flight; they asked, “Is 100 the right number?”

“No. That would not be the right number.”

They said, “Well, we want to be safe.”

I said, “Well, you can cut that in half with no problem at all.” [Laughter]


Posts: 1042
From: UK
Registered: Apr 2005

posted 08-25-2012 11:10 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for issman1     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Now we know why the Russians rarely select or fly female cosmonauts.


Posts: 750
From: Statesville, NC
Registered: Mar 2009

posted 08-25-2012 12:29 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for dogcrew5369   Click Here to Email dogcrew5369     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I would be curious their attitudes about packing maybe hundreds on a Progress to the ISS since there seems to almost always be a lady onboard. I could just see some Russian technician grumbling about having to put so many feminine products in a resupply vehicle.

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 42988
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 08-25-2012 01:07 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The Russians aversion to female cosmonauts seems to have little to anything to do with this topic, other than the past general comments by IBMP medical officers that they view women to be less suited for long-duration spaceflight.

Roscosmos' current chief, Vladimir Popovkin, has said his agency is now actively working to recruit women and he (reportedly) pushed for the flight assignment for Yelena Serova.

Jay Chladek

Posts: 2272
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 08-25-2012 03:02 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Based on what I have read, there were NO concerns about female hygene issues related to women on Russian spaceflights (at least nothing where a scientist or engineer made it public). The Russian aversion to females has more to do with their cultural upbringing and some of the superstitions borrowed from nautical traditions as universally it was considered bad luck to have women on sea going vessels whether or not there were any practical reasons. Those superstitions have proven to be unfounded, but they sometimes rear their ugly heads when something bad happens on a flight with women onboard (Soyuz TMA-11's ballistic reentry with Peggy Whitson and Yi So-Yeon on board for instance).

While Tereshkova didn't have any apparent issues (probably because her flight was too short to have any), Svetlana Savitskaya was up long enough on her first mission that menstruation could have potentially occurred. The Soviets cycled her onto an active flight to ensure that a second Soviet woman flew to Salyut before any American women flew on the shuttle. Her sleeping quarters were in the Soyuz, but she ended up sleeping in the Salyut station with her male colleagues. But the Soyuz toilet was at her disposal for privacy purposes while the men used the normal Salyut toilet. Savitskaya's second flight (which also involved a spacewalk) was also long enough for menstruation to be a potential issue, but again it doesn't seem to have caused a problem either.

After that, while Russian women on the stations was rare (Yelena Kondakova being the only one to date to do a standard length tour on Mir that I know of), there were plenty of women of other nationalities who flew and spent anywhere from one to a few weeks on Mir before coming home. The Soviets were even planning to fly a three person all female crew to Salyut 7 for a mid-duration stay, but the combination of repairs required after Salyut 7's power failure and one of the female cosmonaut crewmembers having to bow out due to pregnancy killed the chances of that happening.


Posts: 2454
From: U.K.
Registered: Jul 2009

posted 08-26-2012 01:00 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for moorouge   Click Here to Email moorouge     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The early aversion to female cosmonauts was a very basic one - the problem of plumbing them in to a waste collection system. The ladies lack a useful appendage with which to attach the plumbing.

Tereshkova spent her flight in a nappy that must have been very uncomfortable by the time her flight ended.

Jay Chladek

Posts: 2272
From: Bellevue, NE, USA
Registered: Aug 2007

posted 08-26-2012 05:59 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Jay Chladek   Click Here to Email Jay Chladek     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
I don't think Gagarin, Titov or most of the other Vostok cosmonauts had access to a loo either, hence the start of the "tradition" that has cosmonauts peeing on bus tires before their flight (not sure if Gagarin really did that, but it makes a good story). I know there is no relief tube system in the current class of Sokol suits anyway. So, nappies as you call them might have been the order of the day for the men as well in Vostok.

NASA on their WCS figured out how to keep a suction with the funnel by putting holes in the sides when held next to a female's region. If they did that, you can bet the Soviets likely did as well when they flew Savitskaya to Salyut 6.


Posts: 269
From: Houston, TX, USA
Registered: Aug 2001

posted 08-27-2012 08:20 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for lewarren   Click Here to Email lewarren     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Jay, do you know for a fact that Svetlana menstruated on-orbit?


Posts: 1309
From: Denver, CO
Registered: Jun 2004

posted 08-27-2012 08:02 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for GoesTo11   Click Here to Email GoesTo11     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Originally posted by hoorenz:
There is a similar passage in Sally Ride's oral history.
There was a similar anecdote involving Judy Resnik related by Mike Mullane in Riding Rockets. As I recall it (I don't have the book close to hand), once they'd reached orbit on 41-D and were unpacking, Resnik unfurled an intimidatingly long bandolier of tampons from her locker and just laughed, saying something like, "No doubt in my mind that a man packed this. If a woman needed this many tampons in a week, she'd be dead of blood loss."

Robert Pearlman

Posts: 42988
From: Houston, TX
Registered: Nov 1999

posted 06-14-2016 11:04 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Robert Pearlman   Click Here to Email Robert Pearlman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Amy Shira Teitel revisited this topic on Vintage Space:
It's not clear who was the first woman to menstruate in space, but someone did it and the answer came back just as the female astronauts expected it would: a period is the same in space as on Earth.

The challenge then became for NASA to deal with its menstruating astronauts...

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