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NASA Astronaut Speaks to Regeneron ISEF Finalists from Space

By Gayle Kansagor

NASA Astronaut Speaks to Regeneron ISEF Finalists from Space
NASA Astronaut Speaks to Regeneron ISEF Finalists from Space Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography

Over two months ago, NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps launched to the International Space Station (ISS) as a mission specialist on NASA’s SpaceX Crew Eight mission. She is serving as a flight engineer aboard the orbiting laboratory and will spend approximately six months conducting science experiments and maintaining the space station. In May, she took time away from her mission to speak virtually with attendees at the 2024 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, answering their questions on topics ranging from conducting research in orbit to the skills astronauts need to be successful.

When we asked Jeanette about how research is planned on the ISS, she explained that research conducted in space must be meticulously planned. “When you think about doing research up here, you really have to plan it out because things just kind of float away,” she shared. “Even our scissors have to be velcroed down.”

Jeanette added, “Doing research in microgravity is very different from on Earth because liquids do not behave the same way.” She told the attendees that much of her work on the ISS focuses on human exploration, including studying materials and how they burn in space, to eventually develop materials that can withstand radiation.

ISEF finalist asks NASA Astronaut, Jeanette Epps a question.
A student asks NASA Astronaut, Jeanette Epps, a question at a special virtual event at ISEF 2024 in Los Angeles, California  Society for Science/Chris Ayers Photography

Jeanette also shared her thoughts on the privatization and commercialization of space travel and the potential risks. She explained, “As more people travel to space, we actually can buy down the risk because more people will have gone. The statistics will show fewer accidents, with more people getting to space safely and coming back home safely. With the Axiom crews that have visited the Space Station, we’re showing that commercial space flight can be a viable option.”

Jeanette told the Regeneron ISEF finalists and other attendees that she never thought becoming an astronaut was an option for her. Working for Ford Motor Company enabled her to increase her technical knowledge, and working in the field for the government elevated her operational skills, which changed her mind. She explained that astronauts must be both scientifically knowledgeable and operationally skilled.

“What I mean by operational,” Jeanette said, “is that I know that many of you can design an aircraft, but you may not be able to fly that aircraft. Similarly, someone who flies an aircraft may not be able to design it. But when you bring the two together, that’s pretty much what we do here in space.”

“Of course I had doubts,” Jeanette added. “I think everybody who wants to apply has doubts because I saw great people not getting accepted into the space program.” But Jeanette told the Regeneron ISEF finalists not to let doubts stop them. “I would encourage you, once you have all the qualifications for applying to the NASA Astronaut Corps, to apply early and often. I know people who applied five times and finally got in. If it’s your dream, I say you pursue it and apply.”

To watch the full conversation, head here.

Aparna Paul