You may have heard a story about women astronauts of the 1978 NASA class being given an absurd amount of tampons by clueless techs. It goes like this: Kathy Sullivan and Sally Ride, both members of the ’78 class, are asked to check a hygiene kit for women in space. Ride begins pulling out a series of tampons fused together in small sealed packages, sort of like links of sausage. And they just keep coming. And coming. Sullivan later recalled that “it was like a bad stage act. There just seemed to be this endless unfurling of Lord only knows how many tampons.” When Ride finally got to the end, the male engineers asked, “Is one hundred the right number?” Sally Ride, with the controlled emotions of a natural astronaut, politely responded, “you can cut that in half with no problem at all.” This is an old tale but was widely circulated online in the late 2010s, at one point featured in a popular musical comedy routine by Marcia Belsky titled “Proof That NASA Doesn’t Know Anything About Women.” It’s a great story, and it isn’t wrong exactly, but it may be missing some context that seriously alters its meaning.
Here’s the thing: Dr. Rhea Seddon, the only combination medical doctor, astronaut, and period-haver in the class of ’78, helped make the decision about how many tampons to include. According to a 2010 interview, the large number of tampons was a safety consideration. As she said, “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.”
According to Seddon, the women were skeptical of the concerns, and their preference was not to treat it as a problem unless it became a problem. But she was involved with the final decision made with the flight surgeons, and according to her:
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.”
In other words, the story may have been less about idiot male techs and more about the NASA approach of solving all problems with more equipment. As Seddon remembers it, they decided to take the maximum amount they imagined a woman with a heavy period could need, multiplied that by two, and then added 50 percent more.
This would be typical NASA behavior—if you read the 1,300-page long Human Integration Design Handbook, which we unfortunately have, you will encounter the word “maximum” 257 times, as on page 604, which contains a remarkably detailed treatment of Number 1, including what you might call a peequation,
VU = 3 + 2t,
where VU is the maximum total urine output in liters per crewmember, and t is the number of days of the mission.
The story may have been less about idiot male techs and more about the NASA approach of solving all problems with more equipment.
In the case of tampons, the excessive concern may have been appropriate. Lynn Sherr, longtime journalist, friend to a number of female astronauts, and also Sally Ride’s biographer, said the first woman who ever menstruated in space had problems with “leakage.” Remember, space is awful. There is no gravity to pull fluids in a generally downward direction. Blood, through a process called capillary action, tends to climb out.
According to Sherr, that anonymous astronaut elected to wear a tampon as well as a pad.
Women astronauts today mostly favor hormonal birth control. These may have to be reworked a bit for a long trip to deep space, since most Earth women don’t require birth control pills that are shelf stable for three years in the presence of space radiation. On a first Mars trip, where the major focus is survival, pregnancy would be a disaster. On any attempt at permanent settlement, pregnancy will be one of the goals.
We apologize for slightly ruining the tampon story, but look—if you want to hear about NASA engineers not understanding female anatomy, better options are available. Take a look at the urination devices they originally proposed for women, of which Seddon once said, “Borrowed from chastity belt designs for sure!”
In what you might call a literal example of structural sexism, the engineers were trying to duplicate the condom-shaped system used by male astronauts. As Amy Foster wrote in Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps, “it seems that none of the male engineers assigned to this project felt comfortable enough to consult a woman first.” The female-anatomy edition never flew, and ultimately women wore a version of what we now call a MAG: maximum absorbency garment. Basically, adult diapers. MAGs are now the standard clothing for situations like launch and landing, where astronauts can’t just get up to use the potty.
This is true for men as well, and it’s a blessing. In order to use the old system, men were required to specify whether they needed a small, medium, or large. The choice between being honest with the medical attendant and potentially wetting yourself while strapped in for launch was apparently Scylla and Charybdis for some. According to Michael Collins, among Apollo-era astronauts, male egos were spared by referring to small, medium, and large as “extra large, immense, and unbelievable.”
This is perhaps not the best “equality helps everyone” story, but it may be the weirdest.
From A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. Copyright © 2023. To be published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.