Last week, The Mary Sue had a small piece about the dull and quite insane question of ‘periods in space’.
In typical Mary Sue form, their approach was both tongue-in-cheek and appropriately dismissive. Their story refers to a longer NPR article about the same question. Neither of them are, in reality, about answering the question. They’re about women, NASA and feminism.
In fact, the NPR article is so focused on NASA’s culture, it seems to skip over the fact that a woman first went into space in 1963: Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. That’s not to say the Soviets were sending women up every other month. After they nabbed this important ‘first’, it was another 19 years before any more woman cosmonauts were launched into space – for the curious, that was Svetlana Savitskaya.
In the article, there’s a snippet from a NASA report in 1971:
“The question of direct sexual release on a long-duration space mission must be considered. Practical considerations (such as weight and expense) preclude men taking their wives on the first space flights. It is possible that a woman, qualified from a scientific viewpoint, might be persuaded to donate her time and energies for the sake of improving crew morale; however, such a situation might create interpersonal tensions far more dynamic than the sexual tensions it would release.”
– NASA technical memorandum, 1971
This snippet reminds me of a scene in an old Heinlein story; All You Zombies. Written more than 10 years before the NASA report, it too talks about sexual tensions:
“It was when they first admitted you can’t send men into space for months and years and not relieve the tension. You remember how the wowsers screamed?—that improved my chance, since volunteers were scarce. A gal had to be respectable, preferably virgin (they liked to train them from scratch), above average mentally, and stable emotionally.”
– All You Zombies, Heinlein, 1958
Both story and snippet in turn remind me of a fierce and angry piece by science fiction author Alice Sheldon – James Tiptree Jr. Her short story ‘With Delicate Mad Hands’ was republished in a collection, ‘Her Smoke Rose Up Forever’. It focuses on a young woman with a disfigured face. Her name is CP. Her nickname is far worse. It’s this scene about CP that came to mind as I read the NPR article:
“And to these tinderboxes you want to add an even reasonably attractive woman, sonny? We know the men do better with a female along. […] But on board a long flight, what we need sexually is a human waste can.”
– With Delicate Mad Hands, James Tiptree, Jr. 1981
I won’t quote any more. The words are ruthless. Tiptree at her best. Written 10 years after the NASA report, the sentiment is clear. When Tiptree wrote, she wasn’t extrapolating. She was responding. She always was. Her fiction is as harsh as the truth.
I read Tiptree as a young woman. I would sometimes find her in a pile of other stories about space and space adventures that were mostly written by men. I knew she was different. Her words filled me with fire. It wasn’t until much later that I realised she was a woman and a fierce and unrelenting feminist. I imagined that much of what she wrote was as a response to the other stories being told at the time. But snippets like this NASA report make it clear it wasn’t only in response to fiction. It was to the world.
The question, the extract, the stories. None of them are funny. They aren’t happy. And they don’t end well. They just are.
It’s good to take a moment and remember why all of this matters. Why people matter. People, refugees, women – any and all of us.
‘Better‘ isn’t good enough. It’s better, and that’s all.