Menstrual cups are everywhere these days. In the supermarket. In museum collections. And in places where you don’t expect them. On board of a space rocket, for example, so astrobiologists can test whether cups can withstand the turbulence and microgravity during a (sub)orbital flight in space.
One giant leap for womankind
That two small Lunette cups recently completed a suborbital space flight (a flight that reaches space but returns to Earth before one full orbit) in a special container may seem ‘one small step for men,’ but it’s ‘one giant leap for women’ (adapted from the quote by Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon). Because while astronauts with wombs are important to science, men and women seem to respond differently to cosmic rays and prolonged microgravity. The list of male astronauts is quit a bit longer than the list of female ones. The European Space Agency (ESA), among others, therefore calls on women to apply for jobs.
That used to be a bit different. For a long time, having a menstrual cycle meant being barred from many professions, including becoming an astronaut. Putting a ‘hormonal woman’ at the helm of a ‘complicated machine’ was asking for trouble, according to researchers at the American Women In Space Program back in the early 1960s. Menstruating in space was thought to be dangerous because of the risk of retrograde menstruation. In addition, female astronauts require special sanitary facilities, spacesuits and space diapers.
An extra challenge: changing tampons and pads at zero gravity
Sanitation in a weightless state is rocket science, as faeces and urine droplets easily escape and float around the cabin. Changing your tampons and sanitary pads without leakage stress is an extra challenge. Female astronauts therefore often choose to stop their cycle with hormonal contraception. Only, modern space missions are going further and further and therefore take more time. A one-way ticket to the moon may only take four days. But work on the International Space Station (ISS) can easily take a few months (the record currently stands at 437 days). And for a one-way trip to Mars, allow at least nine months. This means that space travellers could spend years outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Too long to put their reproductive system completely on hold.
A female-friendly toilet in the ISS: 20 million euros
That astronauts should have access to a variety of menstrual products, ‘sanitary towels, panty liners and tampons in both neutral and scented varieties’, has already been included in the Principles of Clinical Medicine for Space Flight database since 2008. But only in 2020 was the ISS equipped with a female-friendly toilet, that cost 20 million euros, and there are also facilities to dispose of sanitary towels and tampons. Fun fact: a year earlier, the very first female-only spacewalk was canceled at the very last minute because only one female suit was available.
In space you’re still dependent on the things you bring from Earth. For your period, these are currently: sanitary pads and tampons. Or hormonal birth control. Taking personal luggage on board a rocket is quite expensive. For example: 10,000 US dollars per 500 grams, according to NASA. A pack of sanitary napkins of approximately 16 pieces weighs on average 70 grams. Pretty expensive luggage indeed. In addition to freedom of choice, bringing a menstrual cup could also result in significant cost savings.
Suited for space
The two Lunette cups that left the atmosphere in October 2022 seem suited for space, says postdoctoral astrobiology researcher Lígia Fonseca Coelho (co-designer of the six-member AstroCup payload project at Técnico University in Lisbon, Portugal) in an interview with Kate Blackwood from the College of Arts and Sciences. By the way, payload stands for ‘cargo that is not essential for a mission’. Which again seems to be at odds with the mission of the AstroCup project. Or would toilet paper not be considered essential either?
Scientific tests with water and glycerol (the substitute for menstrual blood normally used to test the absorbency of menstrual products) have shown that the cups are in excellent condition after their suborbital flight. Next step for the cups? An orbital spaceflight that extends beyond 200 kilometers from the Earth’s surface. This requires a considerably higher speed (28,000 km/h; a suborbital flight requires ‘only’ 6,000 km/h). And after that? An astronaut who dares to change her cup at zero gravity. Without making a mess ?.
The first M/V/X in space
- Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova boarded Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963, becoming the first woman in space.
- Compatriot Svetlana Savitskaya was selected for the Soyuz T-7 mission in 1982 and goes down in history as the second woman in space.
- The third woman to leave the atmosphere was American astronaut Sally Ride, who took part in the STS-7 mission aboard Challenger in 1983. Her tampons were tied together with the strings so that they could not float loosely through the capsule. There was some uncertainty about the required amount. A male NASA colleague asked whether 100 were enough for the 7-day mission…
- Incidentally, the first living being to go into space was a female dog named Laika, which was launched aboard the Russian spaceship Sputnik II on November 3. Laika didn’t survive the adventure.
- The American astronaut Neil Armstrong entered the history books as the first man to set foot on the moon, in July 1969. ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ he said at the time.
Pictrure: still from the animated film Pigs in Space – The Gravity of the Situation The Muppets.
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