SpaceX Crew-4 astronauts say their space station work will help get NASA to the moon

NASA astronauts on the International Space Station are eyeing the moon, and what it would take to get there. 

SpaceX's Crew-4 astronauts spoke from the orbiting lab about how their work is linking up with NASA's Artemis 1 moon mission, which could launch in November, and with other lunar sorties in the coming years.

"A really exciting part of what we're able to do up here [is] using the International Space Station [ISS] as a testbed for future exploration," NASA's Jessica Watkins told Space.com during a live press conference on Tuesday (Oct. 11), two days before Crew-4's scheduled return to Earth. (The SpaceX Dragon capsule carrying Watkins and her three crewmates is scheduled to splash down Thursday, Oct. 13, at 5:41 p.m. EDT, or 2141 GMT.)

Related: The Artemis plan: Why NASA sees the moon as a stepping stone to Mars

ISS research is gearing up for a big spaceflight leap: sending humans back to the moon for the first time since 1972.

Providing the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission to lunar orbit launches and lands as planned, NASA plans to send Artemis 2 around the moon with astronauts as soon as 2024. Following that, Artemis 3 is scheduled to land on the surface in 2025 or so. Watkins, a Black geologist, may be one of the people making the first lunar bootprints since Apollo 17, for NASA aims to land a woman and a person of color on Artemis 3.

NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, part of SpaceX's Crew-4 mission, looks out the cupola of the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

A large chunk of space station research is devoted to human health, and to advancing technologies like life support or growing plants to make sure they are robust enough to take on the demanding lunar environment, Watkins explained.

"We are looking into ways to protect against some of the hazards that are associated with some of this exploration," Watkins said. Plants will need to contend with very different soil and weaker gravity, for example, while plants and machinery alike will need to deal with intense radiation at the moon's surface.

"Radiation is one of the biggest factors that needs to be mitigated as we move forward," Watkins added, which is why Artemis 1 will have so many sensors in the spacecraft to test and assess the environment.

Crew-5 members are testing out a radiation vest, AstroRad, that will also fly around the moon on an Artemis 1 mannequin. With the sun rapidly entering an active phase in its 11-year activity cycle, space radiation is reaching a high point around the solar system.

Putting AstroRad in Earth and lunar orbit at about the same time will allow scientists to compare ISS astronaut radiation exposure with the mannequin's to see how radiation is percolating across Earth's neighborhood and beyond, Watkins explained.

"The ISS is really enabling us to further technologies and understanding that will enable us to go further into the solar system," added Watkins, whose own research about Mars geology was published in a peer-reviewed journal shortly after she blasted into orbit. The topic: rocks studied by NASA's Curiosity rover.

Related: Amazing launch photos of SpaceX's Crew-4 astronaut mission

The AstroRad vest floats in the International Space Station.

The AstroRad vest floats in the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

A typical space station crew looks at 200 or so investigations with the aim of banking reams of data for future crews to draw upon, no matter where they're located. Both  Watkins and Crew-4 commander and fellow NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren pointed to the human body's reactions to space as a key frame of their research.

One project on immune system science was "really looking at the aging process of immune cells, to better understand the immune dysfunction that we see in astronauts here on orbit," Lindgren said, adding that a shorter-term benefit will be creating better treatments for patients on Earth. "Truly understanding that at the cellular level — that was a lot of fun to participate in."

Crew-4 crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti, who last visited the ISS nearly seven years ago, pointed to big changes in science since she last undocked: a scanning electron microscope, two 3D printers and "all kinds of facilities" to gather information for future crews, she said.

"There is a whole slew of life support technological technology demos that are running on space station, again, something new," said Cristoforetti, a European Space Agency astronaut. "It's an even busier space station."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace