3 absurd stories show how badly NASA understood female astronauts

Sally Ride did not need 100 tampons for a week-long mission.

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch prepare on the International Space Station for the first all-female spacewalk.

It’s been a bumpy aerospace ride, but we finally made it. The first all-women spacewalk took place in the early hours of Friday morning.

Astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made history by stepping outside of the International Space Station hatch for some zero-gravity maintenance work following a long and unfortunate series of setbacks.

Ever since it launched in November 2000, the ISS has had over 200 spacewalks, but never with an all-female team floating outside the spacecraft. Therefore, this achievement may seem long overdue. But even 250 miles above Earth, women can’t escape misconceptions based on their gender.

Throughout history, female astronauts have suffered from some pretty ridiculous, eye-roll inducing incidents in their male-dominated field. In order to commemorate where they are today, we look back at three of the most infamous misconceptions about women in space.


Space secretaries

In the 1960s, William Randolph Lovelace II, who specialized in aerospace medicine, led the first study of the effects of space travel on women. While NASA prepared their male astronauts for America’s first trip to space, Lovelace ran tests on a group of women in his private clinic because he believed they could be better candidates for space travel since they are “smaller and lighter” than men and may require less oxygen.

However, before you go celebrating Lovelace’s pioneering research, apparently he had other intentions.

Lovelace’s reasoning was that orbiting space stations required a lot of work, and the male astronauts would obviously be busy with more important tasks, so they needed women to fill some lower grade jobs like answering phones and assisting at labs — basically your average “secretaries in space” work.

From left to right are Shannon W. Lucid, Margaret Rhea Seddon, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Judith A. Resnik, Anna L. Fisher, and Sally K. Ride. NASA selected all six women as their first female astronaut candidates in January 1978, allowing them to enroll in a training program that they completed in August 1979. Shannon W. Lucid was born on January 14, 1943 in Shanghai, China but considers Bethany, Oklahoma to be her hometown. She spent many years at the University of Oklahoma, receiving a Bachelor in chemistry in 1963, a Master in biochemistry in 1970, and a Doctorate in biochemistry in 1973. Dr. Lucid flew on the STS-51G Discovery, STS-34 Atlantis, STS-43 Atlantis, and STS-58 Columbia shuttle missions, setting the record for female astronauts by logging 838 hours and 54 minutes in space. She also currently holds the United States single mission space flight endurance record for her 188 days on the Russian Space Station Mir. From February 2002 to September 2003, she served as chief scientist at NASA Headquarters before returning to JSC to help with the Return to Flight program after the STS-107 accident. Born November 8, 1947, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Margaret Rhea Seddon received a Doctorate of Medicine in 1973 from the University of Tennessee. She flew on space missions STS-51 Discovery, STS-40 Columbia, and STS-58 Columbia for a total of over 722 hours in space. Dr. Seddon retired from NASA in November 1997, taking on a position as the Assistant Chief Medical Officer of the Vanderbilt Medical Group in Nashville, Tennessee. Kathryn Sullivan was born October 3, 1951 in Patterson, New Jersey but considers Woodland Hills, California to be her hometown. She received a Bachelor in Earth Sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1973 and a Doctorate in Geology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1978. She flew on space missions STS-41G, STS-31, and STS-45 and logged a total of 532 hours in space. Dr. Sullivan left NASA in August 1992 to assume the position of Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She later went on to serve as President and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Judith Resnik was born April 5, 1949 in Akron, Ohio. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1970, and a Doctorate in Electrical Engineering from University of Maryland in 1977. Dr. Resnik left a job as a senior systems engineer in product development with Xerox Corporation at El Segundo, California to work for NASA in 1978. She died on January 28, 1986 on her second mission, during the launch of Challenger STS-51-L. Anna Fisher was born August 24, 1949 in New York City, New York hometown. She received a Doctorate in Medicine in 1976 and a Master of Science in Chemistry in 1987, both from the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Fisher flew on STS-51A, the Space Shuttle Discovery's November 8, 1984. Identifier: GPN-2004-00025 Date: February 28, 1979
The first class of female astronauts, enrolled in 1978, did a lot more than secretary work during their missions.

Still, the women who took part in the tests persevered. Thirteen out of 19 participants passed Lovelace’s rigorous physical exams, and some of them later flew to Washington, D.C. to take part in public hearings before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in order to allow female astronauts to go to space. However, NASA representatives argued that women could not qualify as astronauts, according to NASA records.

The US’s first class of female astronauts didn’t come until more than a decade later, and it took even longer for one to actually go to space.


Too many tampons

It wasn’t until 1983 that astronaut Sally Ride became the first American woman in space (Russia had sent the first woman to space, cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, in 1963.)

For her week-long mission in space, NASA engineers famously asked Ride whether she would need 100 tampons to carry with her onboard. Even if Ride were to have an exceptionally heavy flow, that’s still about 72 tampons too many.

(June 1983) Astronaut Sally K. Ride, mission specialist on STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot's chair on the Flight Deck. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. Image Number: S83-35783 Date: June 18-24, 1983
Astronaut Sally Ride during her first mission to space in 1983.

But women menstruating in space was a big concern at one point in time, with people worried they may get “too emotional” to be able to operate in the space station. Even upon her return back to Earth, Ride had to face questions by the media asking her whether she cried when she was under pressure and whether the flight would affect her reproductive organs, according to an interview with Ride shortly after her return from space.

NASA makeup kit
The NASA makeup kit was complete with all the necessities an astronaut would need for a mission in space.

NASA makeup line

In an effort to better accommodate the new class of female astronauts, NASA engineers actually designed a full-on makeup kit in 1978.

Astronauts generally received personal hygiene kits that include toothpaste, deodorant, soap, and a comb. When women started going to space, NASA went ahead and created a makeup kit.

It received … mixed reviews.

“It was about the last thing in the world that I wanted to be spending my time in training on,” Ride said in a 2002 interview. “So I didn’t spend much time on it at all.”

And while Ride couldn’t be bothered, Rhea Seddon, who was part of that first 1978 class of women astronauts, was actually quite interested in taking makeup to space on her three space shuttle missions.

“If there would be pictures taken of me from space, I didn’t want to fade into the background, so I requested some basic items,” she wrote on her website.

Things have changed a lot since then, but NASA has still been hard-pressed to come up with enough spacesuits for two women to do spacewalks at the same time. That changed Friday, almost 40 years after the first astronaut makeup kit.