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How space affects women and men differently



  Dr. Varsha Jain at Johnson Space Center

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Dr. Varsha Jain faces an Orion crew module at NASA's Johnson Space Center

Around 564 people were in space ̵

1; 65 of them women. This despite the fact that the first woman in space, the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, already in 1963 went into orbit.

It took 20 years for NASA to catch up, and in 1983 Sally Ride became the third woman and the first American to go into space. Prior to her trip, she was asked by the media if she wore make-up on her journey and if she cried when there were glitches in the flight simulator.

On Friday, October 18, NASA made its first all-female spacewalk after plans were dropped earlier this year for lack of mid-size space suits for one of the astronauts.

Dr. Varsha Jain has worked part-time as a space gynecologist for a decade. She combines her doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh's MRC Center for Reproductive Health with the study of women's health in space next to NASA.

She has spoken to Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 Live.

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NASA

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Six of Nasa's first astronauts in January 1978, Sally Ride is the second from the right

Does space affect men and women differently?

VJ: The general adaptation to the space environment is about the same for men and women, but there are some differences.

Women tend to feel ill when they fly into space, men are more likely to get re-outbreaks when they return to Earth.

Men have more visual and hearing problems when returning from space than women. When women return, they have problems controlling their blood pressure, making them feel pretty weak.

So there are some subtle differences, and we do not know if this has anything to do with hormonal differences or more physiological changes. Understanding these differences in the long term will help us to better understand human health on Earth.

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NASA

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Jessica Meir (L) and Christina Koch have the first all-female spacewalk on October 18th

What about space periods?

VJ: When the Americans sent Sally Ride into space, it was about the question of what would happen to women's periods and how we explain it. [19659005] At that time, astronauts said, "Consider it a no problem until it becomes a problem." But space travel is a bit of a camping trip and the engineers had to plan things, how many sanitary products were needed.

Being a male-dominated world, they thought that 100 or 200 tampons would be needed for a week! They came to the conclusion that many were not needed.

Most female astronauts now use the contraceptive pill to stop their periods, and this is safe for them as they are healthy women.

Part of my job has been finding other ways in which women can break their periods to see if things like the contraceptive spiral are more effective.

] The toilet in the module Tranquility of the International Space Station

Why are toilets in space sometimes challenging women?

VJ: There are two toilets on the International Space Station, but the engineers did not originally count on blood.

In space, no urine is wasted, but recycled and used to produce drinking water. Period blood is considered a solid material and none of the toilets on the space station can distinguish solid from liquid material, so the water contained in it is lost and will not be recycled.

There are also limitations on the use of water for washing so that the practicality of personal hygiene during menstruation during space travel can be challenging.

Board the seventh shuttle mission

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SPL

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Valentina Tereshkova flew in 1963 as the first woman in space

Does space travel affect your ability to have children?

VJ: There is no apparent demonstrable effect that entering space has on an astronaut's ability to have children. It is important to remember that both male and female astronauts have successfully had children after space missions.

Female astronauts, on average, are 38 years old on their first mission.

This is an area where Nasa, in my opinion, plays a pioneering role as a supportive work environment. After all, freezing eggs or sperm is a very personal decision, and to my knowledge NASA has no records of what their astronauts should do before space missions.

We know that astronauts are exposed to a radiation risk in space, and we do not know how it affects the fertility of women.

The quality of sperm and the number of sperm sinks after space travel, but then the sperm regenerate on Earth, so no long-term damage is known. Women are born with all the eggs they need for their lives. That's why NASA supports female astronauts who freeze their eggs before they start using them.

How did you become a space gynecologist?

VJ: My interest in space came before my fascination with medicine. As a child my brothers both liked Star Trek and saw strong female characters like Beverly Crusher and Captain Kathryn Janeway, who really inspired me and shaped my goals.

I knew that I wanted to work in the field of space medicine, and since I practiced gynecology at the time, I found a big gap in women's health knowledge, which in my opinion deserved a platform.

My first day at NASA was like a kid in a candy store. When I drove to the NASA Johnson Space Center, for the first time I saw the sign that I remember because I was so excited. I remember waking up every day at 5:00 am because I could not wait to get to work.

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Would you go to space yourself?

VJ: Not for a long mission! I know too much about the physiological changes and that scares me off.

The changes in the human body are like an accelerated aging process. When we make bone changes, astronauts lose bone mass when they enter space, and parts of that bone mass are never recovered, despite the excellent countermeasures and programs the astronauts have on their return.

Of course I'd like to see Earth look like from space, but in the long run I think I know I'm already doing my dream job.

Varsha Jain was one of the first academic physicians to focus on the study of women's health in terms of space. She is currently a 2019 fellow at the MRC Reproductive Health Center at the University of Edinburgh. Investigation of why women suffer from heavy menstrual bleeding.

The Emma Barnett Show will air on BBC Radio 5 Live from Monday to Thursday from 10:00 to 13:00 CET. Click here to listen to a BBC Sounds 5 live news special: The Women of Nasa.


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