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How Do Women Deal With Having a Period … in Space?

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Cat’s Eye Nebula
NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Sally Ride’s tampons might be the most-discussed tampons in the world. Before Ride became the first American woman in space, scientists pondered her tampons, weighed them, and NASA’s professional sniffer smelled them—better to take deodorized or non-deodorized?—to make sure they wouldn’t smell too strongly in a confined space capsule. Engineers considered exactly how many she might need for a week in space. (Is 100 the right number?, they famously asked her. No, Ride said. That is not the right number.)

The engineers were trying to be thoughtful, though; reportedly they packed the tampons with their strings connected so that they wouldn’t float away. I imagine Sally Ride’s tampons hovering like sausage links in the space shuttle, and wonder if the male astronauts ever came across them and, embarrassed, tried to float quickly away.

All this is to say that menstruation clearly made NASA squirm. Before women went into space, there were not only the sadly typical concerns that women would become weepy or unable to function during their periods, but also that the menstrual cycle might somehow break in space. Would the blood come out without gravity to pull it from the womb? Maybe it would all pool up in there, or even flow backward through the fallopian tubes into the abdomen—a frightening condition called retrograde menstruation.

In the end, someone just had to try it and see what happened. And what happened was … nothing much. The uterus is pretty good at expelling its lining sans gravity, it turns out (after all, lying down doesn’t seem to matter much). Dealing with space tampons is something of a nuisance, though, and space cramps aren’t probably any nicer than Earth cramps. So now scientists have raised a possibility for female astronauts that has only begun to occur to most women—maybe we don’t need to have periods at all.

We have the technology. A combined oral contraceptive, or the pill, used continuously (without taking a week off to induce menstrual flow) is currently the best and safest choice for astronauts who prefer not to menstruate during missions, says Varsha Jain, a gynecologist and visiting professor at King’s College London. She and her colleague Virginia Wotring, who as NASA’s chief pharmacologist was asked to suggest the best contraceptive, published a study of space menses Tuesday in the journal Microgravity. Contraceptive implants and IUDs are options, too, but the pill already has a good track record in space.

In fact, not only have female astronauts already tried out the continuous-pill method (to much less fanfare than Sally Ride’s space tampons), but more women on Earth are opting out of periods too. Polls suggest that about a third of women feel they need to have a monthly period because it seems “natural” and reassures them they’re not pregnant, Jain says, but the bleeding that occurs during the week off the pill isn’t necessary, or even particularly natural. Women who take the pill continuously don’t build up a uterine lining that needs to be shed. And having a flow doesn’t ensure you’re not pregnant.

“It’s completely safe to suppress the menstrual cycle,” Jain says. Of course, the pill does come with some risks—blood clots in the legs and lungs are a main concern. But Jain says that studies have found no difference in health risks for taking the pill continuously compared with taking it for three weeks at a time.

For long-term space travel, there are added benefits of skipping the flow. “The waste disposal systems onboard the U.S. side of the International Space Station that reclaim water from urine were not designed to handle menstrual blood,” Jain and Wotring write. A woman spending three years in space, say to go to Mars and back, would need about 1,100 pills, which adds some weight to a mission, but is less unwieldy than all those tampons.

As with many aspects of female physiology, there’s still much we don’t know. Could an IUD be shifted by the high Gs astronauts experience during launch? Would an implant under the skin catch on a spacesuit? There’s no reason to think so, but no one has tried it.

Maybe if we weren’t so squeamish about discussing the menstrual cycle, we’d learn more.

41 thoughts on “How Do Women Deal With Having a Period … in Space?

  1. What about all those hormones that pass through and end up in the water that will be recycled for the rest of the crew to drink?

    1. Kevin, my I remind you of all the foods you eat on a daily basis that have come into contact with non-human hormones? And add to the fact that you are exposed to human hormones of the opposite sex quite regularly. I doubt, the amount of estrogen and progesterone in the water will negatively affect the male astronauts on board. Not to mention both men and women possess estrogen and testosterone. Besides, they are in space for the science. They are willing to risk muscular degeneration for the sake of science and space. I think they can handle it recycled water. Granted if they were all men would that throw off their hormone levels? If there were effects it would likely be miniscule.

    2. I don’t believe consuming sex hormones orally alters your bodies sex hormone levels, as they are passed through the endocrine system. BUT If hormones can and also manage to get through the filter system, men and women naturally produce both estrogen and testosterone regardless of gender. I assume if there is an excess of a hormone in the body, it will naturally pass through the body again or the body will not produce more.

    3. The recycling system purifies all wastewater on board, including the crew’s urine. Taking that into consideration, I doubt hormones prove much of a problem for it. Besides, most hormones are degraded in the stomach anyway, so even if they would end up in the water that might not even be a risk.

    4. If you’re gonna go there, what about all the testosterone and sperm in the urine of all those men, when a woman drinks the recycled water?
      I imagine the answer is that it’s a really damn good filtration process.

    5. You do realize the water we ALL drink has been on this earth for eons. It is full of all of the liquid wastes from everything that has produced waste…ever. Drink up…it’s what keeps you going!

    1. Even if it may sound as a good idea.. Well.. It’s not. It’s so wrong on so many levels. It made me laugh though 🙂

  2. It is worth mentioning that they do increase your risk for breast cancer (slightly) and blood clots (moderately).
    I do not believe there is a drug that has NO negative potential side effects. Everyone has to make their own informed assessment of risk.

    1. It is a decision many women consider. For many it is not about controlling pregnancy, but simply the cramping and how it physically affects one’s ability to be functionable. For some women, PMS are the symptoms prior to the period itself and that can throw them into a flu-like state. For others the symptoms during the period is debilitating. In today’s society, employers already have an unequal view of hiring women in fear of the Maternity leave, so in response many female employees want to minimize whatever possible inconvenience to show they are a hard working and reliable employee.

      So Pill for school and work is not that uncommon.

      As for blood clots, that is more of a risk if you take the pill and live a sedentary life. If you get up walk around after 40 minutes of sitting, you’re golden for the most part. That’s pretty much true for men and women alike.

      Breast cancer, yes, if you’re prone to it. All stuff people should talk about to their gyno about.

    2. Then again, astronauts are potentially at higher risk of developing cancer due to greater exposure to radiation in space anyway, so the risks from taking the pill (baring other risk factors like smoking, etc) may be the least thing to worry about.

    3. Oral contraceptives also decrease the risk of ovarian cancer. Breast cancer is often more treatable and survivable than ovarian.

    1. Yikes, that sounds really messy in zero- gravity. It’s quirky enough in 1-G, even with lots of practice. I used one for years before I reached menopause, and I can just picture how terrible it would be. Have you seen pictures of what happens to loose liquids in space? : )

  3. As a child I dreamed of traveling through space, as an adult I’m glad I lowered my expectations because I’m not sure I could handle drinking recycled urine. What about all th fluid lost in the stool?

    1. Providing that your large intestine and colon are functioning properly, the remaining water in stool is just enough to lubricate it in the tract, and most water has been reabsorbed by the large intestine as it’s primary job is to do so. A healthy body is quite literally designed to be as water efficient as possible.

    1. The divacup does not eliminate menstrual fluid from the urine reclamation system. Tampons were suggested as a way to minimize menstual flow in the system overall.

  4. Why not release them into space – one new, one used to see if they’d end up in anotheir far away galaxy to let aliens know they are not alone?

  5. Does rotation of moon around the earth affect women hormones and period cycle? If so how would the cycle be away from moonar affect (trip to mars)
    (Isn’t some kind of gravitational force such as moon affectin human body?)

  6. I strongly agree with Tony and Kevin above. As regards Rick’s solution, unfortunately, it is not applicable, for several reasons (eg.: during the night). Unless you bear a catheter, however I would not sleep with a functioning device inside…
    Tampons are the best choice. If disposed of correctly, that is.

  7. I don’t understand how the implant would catch on a spacesuit because it’s subdermal. That’s like saying that scar you got last year will catch on a spacesuit.

  8. The wife had her tubes tied years ago so no birth control is needed. She still has her periods but they are quite inconvenient for those romantic trips to far away places. We have been using the BC Pill routine for years to “manage” the inconvenience of her periods while we are travelling, abroad or otherwise. Start 2 months before trip, stop when arrived at home. Yes, the follow-on period can be kind of heavy, but she swears they are no worse than the “regular” heavy ones she sometimes gets. Odd that NASA is just now figuring this out when I bet my wife and I are not the only ones who have been doing this for many years… I would like to think it was my idea, but that is rarely the case. She thought it was quite clever but required our doctor’s “approval” and when that was wholeheartedly given, away we went. Started about 10 years ago with our first “second honeymoon” to Costa Rica.

  9. After reading This, all I thought was how women are considered such an inconvenient to space missions. How many decades have passed since the first female austronaut? Why have’nt space ships been built to be accessible to humans PERIOD and not just men? We’ve seen “pets” be sent to space and everything were considered before sending them. But not women ? Is This really happening?

  10. These people are scientists. Are you sure they’d be squeamish about something like this?

    P.S. I know nothing about this topic other than the importance of clean clean cloths and carcinogen-free tampons.

  11. All these comments and no mention of how bitchy the pill makes a woman. Also some women find some types of BC gives them fuzzy thinking. The only good thing, other than not worrying about spilling blood in zero G, is BC pills tend to lower your libido…which might be good…or bad. Sex hormones in balance equal health.

  12. There’s an alternative to taking pills–it’s called menstrual extraction, a technique whereby the “matter” is sucked out of the uterus all at once, and the “period” is over. Apparently it’s easy to learn how to do it oneself. Google it. Interesting.

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