When Sally Ride, the first American woman to go to space, was preparing for her history-making mission in 1983, NASA engineers were trying to gather the supplies she’d need to take with her. They thought to include tampons, but they had no idea how many women actually use. The mission only lasted a week, and Ride recounts in an oral history that they asked her, “Is 100 the right number?”
“No. That would not be the right number,” she replied.
“They said, ‘Well, we want to be safe.’”
“I said, ‘Well, you can cut that in half with no problem at all.’”
(Also as part of this discussion the engineers, “in their infinite wisdom,” Ride said, designed a makeup kit for the women astronauts.)
Even this silly, bumbling male ignorance of how women’s bodies work was a step up from earlier attitudes about menstruation in space. A 1964 report published by the Woman in Space Program, which gave women aviators the same tests as the Mercury astronauts, emphasized “the potential for the menstrual cycle to alter performance during space flight,” as a review paper notes. There was no reason to believe this—13 of the 19 women tested passed with “no medical reservations,” a 68 percent success rate compared to the men’s 56 percent success rate. Indeed, this suggestion smells more like old-fashioned sexism than actual medical concern; the report goes on to say that “the intricacies of matching a temperamental psychophysiologic human and the complicated machine are many.”