Tim Peake, the first British astronaut set to visit the International Space Station, visited London's Science Museum on Friday, his last UK appearance before leaving the planet.
"It's a huge privilege to be sat here with just over five weeks to go until I sit on top of a Soyuz rocket and launch on this incredible adventure to the International Space Station," he said.
Peake is set to launch from Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome on December 15. He's the first British astronaut to be selected by the European Space Agency, but not the first Briton in space. That honour went to Helen Sharman, who visited the now-defunct Russian Mir space station in 1991 supported by a UK consortium and the Soviet Union.
Peake's mission is named Principia after Isaac Newton's scientific text Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
The former Army Air Corps officer (whose rank as Major has accorded him the nickname "Major Tim") will be participating in numerous science activities during his six-month mission. Motherboard asked Peake which experiment he was most looking forward to most, and while he said he couldn't possibly choose between the latest count of 265 experiments, Peake singled out one research project on new metal materials, and another on growing protein crystals for drug research.
The metal research will use ESA's electromagnetic levitator to rapidly heat and cool metals in mid-air to observe the physics behind their structural changes. The ultimate goal is to design new materials with more desirable properties, such as strength or lightness.
"As somebody who's been involved in the aviation industry, I think the idea of investigating new metal alloys that we can use in our aircraft engines [and] we can use in our vehicle engines—we can make them cleaner, we can make them more efficient—that to me is very exciting research," he said.
"It's something you can only do in microgravity on the space station."
Peake will work on the protein crystal experiments in the Japanese "Kibo" section of the ISS. The environment of space allows researchers to grow higher quality protein crystals than on Earth, which allows scientists to more easily examine the structure of a protein that causes disease or one that treats it.
"It's something you can only do in microgravity on the space station, because you need a long period of time to grow the crystals," explained Peake. "And the benefits of having good protein crystals means that you really can identify very good drugs for cancer and diseases."
He'll also be a "guinea pig" for 23 life sciences studies investigating the effects of space on everything from the immune system to ageing. Such research is important for understanding health on Earth, and in tandem with technical advances, will also help pave the way for future missions beyond lower Earth orbit.
ESA's director of human spaceflight Thomas Reiter, who was also at the event, said future goals would probably include returning to the Moon, "and the ultimate goal would be to bring humans on to the surface of our neighbouring planet, Mars."
While Peake is aboard the ISS, he'll see several vehicles arrive from both public and private agencies. SpaceX CRS-9 is expected to deliver an International Docking Adapter (IDA-2), which Peake said would pave the way for the arrival of new commercial crew vehicles currently in development.
Astronauts will also receive the BEAM module, a temporary expandable room for the space station from Bigelow Aerospace. "This will be attached to the space station, increasing the pressurised volume onboard the space station and paving the way for future commercial space stations hopefully by the end of this decade."
"There's nothing to stop school kids in Great Britain today from being among the first to set foot on Mars."
On a personal level, Peake emphasised the educational value of UK visibility in space. Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science, noted a £1.5 million investment from the UK Space Agency into related educational activities such as free projects for schools.
Principia will be the first time a Union Flag has been worn in space in 24 years.
"What that means is there's nothing to stop school kids in Great Britain today from being amongst the first men and women to set foot on Mars in the future," said Peake.