A revolutionary solution to improve equality in Space
Menstrual cups were launched for the first time on a suborbital rocket, kicking off studies on alternative menstrual devices in space and opening the conversation about the challenges experienced by astronauts who have periods – a step in the right direction towards achieving equal opportunities for women in STEM.
Women's health in space is an understudied area of research. Menstruation is hormonally suppressed during missions, lasting up to several months. The formal term is “medically induced amenorrhea”, and the main reasons are economic. Tampons and pads are too heavy and, therefore, too expensive to be sent to space while also being a disposable burden. Currently, astronauts can suspend menstruation for up to six months when going to the International Space Station (ISS). In the space laboratory, they perform scientific experiments to learn more about space and how biology copes with the space environment. However, in the future, longer space missions such as colony-building on the Moon and Mars will raise difficult ethical questions regarding women’s health and reproductive rights.
No woman has ever stepped foot on a celestial body other than Earth. Future space missions like Artemis - a NASA programme aiming to explore the lunar surface, laying the groundwork for sending astronauts to Mars, want to change that by sending the first woman to the Moon. However, there aren’t many studies on alternatives to tampons and pad in space. Therefore, menstrual cups could be a sustainable, efficient, and safe solution that allows astronauts to perform their job and scientific experiments in the most comfortable setting possible: their choice.
Some research is being done on this issue already. The AstroCup team from Portugal is an example. The team comprises a diverse group of scientists and aerospace engineers - half women, in both scientific and engineering roles. Their ambition is to study the effect of a rocket launch on menstrual cups while raising awareness about the problem of inequality in space, starting with addressing how restrictive the topic of menstruation for astronauts is. The team put together a scientific package comprised of two menstrual cups and data-measuring electronic devices. This payload was then launched on board the Baltasar rocket, the first Portuguese rocket to be successfully launched and recovered in an official rocketry competition. The pioneering AstroCup mission acquired essential preliminary data for future rounds of research on using such medical devices in the space environment. The experiment consisted of testing the menstrual cups' performance before and after the flight and analysing the impact of the environmental variations on the cups during the flight. For this purpose, they used four cups: two for ground control and the others for the flight. In both cases, they tested one of the cups with water and the other with glycerol. Water is a neutral liquid less dense than glycerol, facilitating the observation of small cracks if the flight damages the cup’s structure. Glycerol has a viscosity analogue to human blood. After withstanding a quickly accelerating and vibrating rocket’s flight conditions, the menstrual cups didn’t show performance degradation.
This experiment might be the first step of long-lasting research on the endurance and feasibility of using menstrual cups in space. Further tests in future payloads will determine: 1) the material’s endurance to microgravity and radiation exposure over time, 2) the efficacy of the cup in a space environment over time, 3) the cup’s usability by menstruating astronauts, 4) the cups’ hygiene and 5) disposal techniques.
Thanks to initiatives like the AstroCup team, astronauts may soon no longer have to worry about their reproductive rights when they are selected for short or long-term missions in space, promoting equality for women in STEM.