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Twitter was awash in horror and humor on January 16th. You may be thinking, “That’s not unusual for Twitter whatsoever,” but the reason for it was unique. The account of NASA’s history office shared a photo of an unused astronaut grooming kit for female space crew members, complete with an entire stash of makeup. The image was accompanied by a quote from astronaut Sally Ride expressing incredulity at the idea of NASA’s top male engineers pouring their sweat into the creation of a little yellow cosmetics case. When the First American Woman to Go to Space speaks, you listen, and naturally, voices erupted. But the truth behind how kits like this came to be is slightly less controversial and not a little patriotic.
Sally Ride: "The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup - so they designed a makeup kit... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit." #RideOn #Classof78 pic.twitter.com/dNZ51cWELH— NASA History Office (@NASAhistory) January 16, 2018
NASA has been making flight kits since the first crews took to the stars. The standard kit held everything an astronaut would need for grooming, like razors, lotion, dental floss, and even Chapstick. Some items were nearly required: Shaving cream had to be used with razors to collect tiny hair that could escape and cause problems in the spacecraft. All items were tested beforehand for safety and flammability, then added to a list of approved items astronauts could pick from to customize their kit.
The major requirements had to do with the packaging itself. All items had to be strapped down, or in bottles or containers that would cut down on drippings and messes; even the smallest fleck of dust or crumbs could migrate into astronauts’ lungs or machinery and cause problems. Everyone lived happily ever after with their nail clippers and combs until the class of ’78, when six women were admitted into the new class of 35 astronauts. NASA had been testing women for rigorous spaceflight missions since the FLATS — the First Lady Astronaut Trainees — in the early 1960s. Because of the work of that early group of women, there was no question of whether the class of ’78 would be able to fly — their technical skills were not up for debate because of their gender, and they were treated the same as the male trainees — but having women in the space program came with a lot of other mysteries and mountains to be conquered.
“The most obvious was that they needed to add a women’s locker room to the astronaut gym,” Sally Ride said in an October 2002 interview. And the items inside the locker were not easy to figure out, either. Standard-issue clothing was a hurdle.
While white T-shirts and tighty-whities worked for the male crew then and even now, bras and panties are more difficult to apply to a wide range of women, and so the engineers went to work finding a larger catalog of nonflammable, still-comfortable offerings for the new female crew. “By the way, no lingerie was available — only sleep shorts and tee shirts,” notes Dr. Rhea Seddon, a member of the class of ’78, in her blog.
But an even larger question than underwear was what goes on... under there. For years, male astronauts had been performing urine collections with a setup that was comprised of a condom-like sleeve relieving into a hose and a collection bag. Naturally, that wouldn’t work with women.
Valerie Neal, a space-shuttle curator at the Smithsonian (owners of the now-infamous space makeup kit), sheds some light on the path to female bathroom hygiene in flight. “They tried creating some sort of form-fitted plastic devices that you could tuck in close that would serve as a funnel, attached to a hose and plastic bag, but that was too messy,” she says. The answer, it turns out, was already on the market, requiring just a bit of NASA engineering ingenuity. The women of the space program brought up the idea of diapers; Pampers were popular in 1978, and two of the astronauts were mothers. Disposable absorbent diapers were not readily available in adult size at that time, but were a decidedly better option regardless. “NASA tried to create a bicycle short, but they were not reusable, and not as cost effective to use as diapers,” Neal explains. The Smithsonian Air and Space museum has a collection of those early adult diaper prototypes — six, to be exact, all pull-ons, in case you were wondering.
Menstruation was equally puzzling for the male engineers at NASA, who had no idea whether spaceflight would create negative impact on the female body and menstrual blood flow. Valerie Neal reminds us that these discussions across gender lines weren’t as common as they are today. “They weren’t used to working with women in this way,” she says. “Menstruation and things were private, and they didn’t know how to ask them about it. The whole group learned how to adapt to each other.”
For one of the first missions, engineers famously presented Sally Ride with a string of 100 tampons for a weeklong mission. According to Neal, “engineers took them out of commercial packaging, and tied tampons together like a string of sausages. But women also had a choice to alter their cycle if they didn’t wanna be bothered [with their period].” That process involved meticulous planning of birth control and IUDs, which could be removed right after a mission to return to a normal cycle. “It’s about giving them choices,” Neal says. “Where there’s room for choice in personal hygiene, they let the astronauts have preferences.”
Which brings us back to a little yellow package of space makeup that Ride couldn’t have been less interested in. “It was about the last thing in the world that I wanted to be spending my time in training on. So I didn’t spend much time on it at all,” she says in that 2002 interview. “But there were a couple of other female astronauts, who were given the job of determining what should go in the makeup kit.” NASA engineers kept the process of customizing standardized kits based on preference, with a list of pre-approved items. While some people weren’t interested in applying blush on a mission, others, like Rhea Seddon, were concerned about looking tired or blending into the background.
“I spoke up for the minority. 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,” Seddon explains on her website. “It was interesting to me that that I wasn’t the sole space traveler whose in-flight pictures showed a bit of lipstick and blush.” Seddon wasn’t looking for an entire kit of going-out face, but as an astronaut with pale skin who would undoubtedly be photographed often, she didn’t want to look washed out. She asked for a pretty basic kit to help her keep fresh-faced. Included in the kit in the Smithsonian’s archive? Eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, makeup remover, blusher, and lip gloss.
Other in-demand items were hand lotion and Chapstick, and Clinique products were particularly popular with the female crew. “If a woman wanted a makeup kit and her products tested out as okay, she could have it,” Neal says.
The Air and Space museum has kept this makeup kit, as well as other used astronaut grooming products, not just as mementos of humans in space, but as a reminder of a time when women entered this workforce and existing scientists had to adapt to make room for a new type of astronaut. Beginning with a new group of 35 was likely a great start, though. As Sally Ride said, “The selection committee was looking for men that were comfortable working with women, that were used to working with women, and that had no problem working with women, and they succeeded. It was a very congenial class and we really didn’t have any issues at all within our group. They were very respectful, and incorporated us as part of the group from the very beginning.”
And so, the controversy around a tiny kit of makeup, which comes up every few years when that photo resurfaces, is less about imposing societal views, and more about making life a little more comfortable for brave humans working on near-impossible missions in dangerous atmospheres. If an astronaut wanted to apply a layer of gloss in space, her engineers would back her up.