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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.

Herman Melville, Science Writer

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been dipping into a project called “Moby Dick Big Read.” Plymouth University in England is posting a reading of Moby Dick, one chapter a day. The readers are a mix of writers, artists, and actors, including Tilda Swinton.  They are also posting the chapters on SoundCloud, which makes them very easy to embed. Here is one of my personal favorites, Chapter 32, “Cetology.”

When I was an English major in college, I read Moby Dick under the guidance of English professors and literary critics. They only paid attention to a fraction of the book–the fraction that followed Ishmael on his adventures with Captain Ahab. This was the part of the book that they could easily compare to other great novels, the part they could use for their vague critiques of imperialism, the part–in other words–that you could read without having to bother much with learning about the particulars of the world beyond people: about ships, about oceans, and, most of all, about whales. How many teachers, assigning Moby Dick to their students, have told them on the sly that they could skip over great slabs of the book? How many students have missed the fine passages of “Cetology”?

I’ve read Moby Dick several times since graduating college and becoming a science writer. I look back now at the way I was taught the book, and I can see it was a disaster, foisted upon me by people who either didn’t understand science or were hostile to it, or both. Of course the historical particulars of the book matter. It’s a book, in part, about globalization–the first worldwide energy network. But the biology of the book is essential to its whole point. Just as Ahab becomes obsessed with Moby Dick, the scientific mind of the nineteenth century became mad with whales.

“Cetology” reminds the reader that Melville came before Darwin. Ishmael tries to make sense of the diversity of whales, and he can only rely on the work of naturalists who lacked a theory of evolution to make sense of the mammalian features on what looked like fish. You couldn’t ask for a better subject for a writer looking for some absurd feature of the natural world that could serve as a wall against which Western science could bang its head.

The people I know who don’t like the “whale stuff” in Moby Dick probably hate this chapter. It seems to do nothing but grind the Ahab-centered story line to a halt. (No movie version of Moby Dick has put “Cetology” on film.) But do you really think that a writer like Melville would just randomly wedge a chapter like “Cetology” into a novel for no reason–not to mention the dozens of other chapters just like it? Or perhaps it would be worth trying to find out what Melville had in mind, even if you might have to do a bit of outside reading about Carl Linnaeus or Richard Owen? It would be quite something if students could be co-taught Moby Dick by English professors and biologists.

“Cetology” is organized, explicitly, as a catalog, but don’t let the systematic divisions of its catalog put you off. This is science writing of the highest order, before there was science writing. Listen to the words he uses to describe each species. If you go whale watching some day and are lucky enough to spot a fin whale raising its sundial-like dorsal fin above the water, chances are you will utter to yourself, “gnomon.”