CARIBOU, Maine — The valedictorian of Caribou High School’s Class of 1995 is among eight Americans selected by NASA to begin training for future space missions that may one day take them to Mars.
Dr. Jessica U. Meir, 35, joins three other women and four men as the newest members of the space agency’s astronaut corps at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA announced Monday.
A graduate of Brown University with advanced degrees from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and the International Space University in Illkirch, France, Meir is an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Meir now has two months to wrap up her work at Harvard before reporting for her new job as a full-time United States astronaut, a goal which on Monday she said has been a lifelong pursuit.
“I have been very interested in science from a young age,” Meir said by phone Monday evening. “I was mostly interested in biology and physiology and always interested in space flight, so I involved myself in as many space-related activities as I could.”
Over the years those opportunities included participating in space camp at Purdue University the summer before her freshman year at Caribou High School and a six-week summer program at the Kennedy Space Center between her sophomore and junior years at Brown.
Meir also took part in what NASA calls “reduced gravity student flight opportunities” in which university students design experiments using the so-called “vomit comet” — a machine which simulates 25 to 30 seconds of weightlessness.
Thanks to a full scholarship from an anonymous donor, Meir was able to spend a year at the International Space University working toward her master’s degree with students from 20 other countries.
“Then I went to work for NASA in Houston for three years supporting human life experiments performed on the International Space Station,” she said. “Experiments that looked at how microgravity and spaceflight affects the human body.”
Meir found herself drawn to looking at conditions faced in extreme environments, be they leagues below the sea or at high elevations.
In her research, she has spent time in the Aquarius underwater habitat off Key Largo, Fla., traveled to Antarctica to study Emperor penguins’ adaptations to long underwater dives and even raised a flock of high-altitude flying geese to determine how the birds are able to withstand the physiological pressures of flight patterns taking them up and over the Himalayas.
Meir said she knew her chances were slim to make it into the astronaut program, given the reductions in flight missions.
In 2009, when the last class of astronauts was picked, she made it all the way to the final round of applicants.
“When the head of the selection committee called me last week, she said, ‘Jessica, the second time’s the charm,’” Meir said.
Meir’s family, including her parents, Josef and Ulla-britt Meir, who no longer live in Caribou but summer in southern Maine, are thrilled by the announcement, Meir said,
“My family and friends have always known this has been my dream,” she said. “They are excited and I have always been encouraged by such a strong network of these people.”
In addition to the possibility of being on the first crew to visit an asteroid or Mars, the team members could be among the first to launch on a U.S.-built rocket since the era of the space shuttle, which ended in 2011, according to NASA.
“These new space explorers asked to join NASA because they know we’re doing big, bold things here — developing missions to go farther into space than ever before,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “They’re excited about the science we’re doing on the International Space Station and our plan to launch from U.S. soil to there on spacecraft built by American companies. And they’re ready to help lead the first human mission to an asteroid and then on to Mars.”
The first two years in the program will be spent covering everything from flight training to outdoor survival skills to language studies.
“I am excited and really anticipating the training,” Meir said. “It is so humbling [and] I don’t want to let them down.”
After spending two years going through the astronaut training program, Meir will be assigned to areas as needed within NASA while she waits for her first mission.
That mission could include work on the International Space Station or helping to develop plans for and perhaps participating in manned explorations of Mars or asteroids.
“If I am lucky, I will get to play a role in that,” she said.
From her public-school days in Caribou up through her postdoctoral research, Meir said she has been fortunate to partner with and learn from supportive teachers.
“One of the things that has been so invaluable to me is I have been really lucky to have some incredible mentors in my career,” she said. “Not only are they brilliant, top-of-the-line scientists, they are also amazing, caring people you want to hang out with and who care about you on a personal level.”
Among those with whom she first shared Monday’s news was one of her former teachers at Caribou High School.
“I was giving an exam today and got a message from Jessica,” Kenneth W. Atcheson II, advanced U.S. history teacher at CHS, said late Monday afternoon. “In it she said, ‘Mr. Atcheson, dreams do come true.’”
Meir, according to Atcheson, had wanted to be an astronaut for as long has he has known her.
“This is just an unbelievable and thrilling day for me and for Jessica,” Atcheson said. “She is an amazing individual who is bright, intelligent and thinks on her feet.”
All skills well-suited for what lies ahead, he said.
“This is the little girl who sat in my room and now she could land on Mars,” Atcheson said. “They are going to blast my little Jessica into space, the girl who at one time I could say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No, you can leave class to go to the bathroom.’”
There has been no announcement of any launch date yet, but Atcheson will be keeping a close eye on that progress.
“I might be sick the day they launch into orbit,” Atcheson said. “There is going to be one big party to bang up this whole state when that girl goes into space.”