Caribou native Jessica Meir remembers when she was in first grade at Teague Park Elementary School. Her teacher, Marty Belanger, asked students to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. Jessica drew an astronaut.
Today that image is more than a dream. At age 37, Meir is a member of the 21st NASA astronaut class, poised to advance from “candidate” to “astronaut” through training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
One of eight candidates selected from more than 6,100 applicants in June 2013, she is completing a two-year Astronaut Candidate Training program that includes land survival, Russian language, flight training, robotics training, spacewalk training, instruction on the systems aboard the International Space Station, travel to different NASA centers and training with international partners in Canada, Japan and Europe.
“Every day is different,” she said in a phone interview last week, describing a range of activities from intensive hands-on classroom instruction to flying. Once they achieve proficiency in all components of the training program, class members will be eligible for flight assignments, such as a six-month stay on the International Space Station and, in the future, missions to asteroids and possibly Mars.
“I would be thrilled to contribute to any mission NASA assigns me to . . . just getting into space would fulfill my dreams at this point,” she said, explaining the first step after training will be assignment to a technical job at the Johnson Space Center.
“Incredible,” “amazing” and “exciting” was how she described her preparation for the experience she has imagined since she was 5 years old.
Conversant in Swedish, her mother’s native language, she has enjoyed learning the Russian language she will use to communicate with her Russian counterparts on the International Space Station.
Although she has a private pilot’s license, she called the seven-week Navy flight training in Pensacola, Florida, “amazing.” Flying the T-6 training plane was a “big step up” from planes she had flown.
Back in Houston, she learned to fly the faster T-38 jets used by astronauts and will work toward logging her required flight hours to maintain flight proficiency.
“It is very valuable operational training with real consequences,” she said of her role in the back seat of the T-38, operating duplicate controls with the military pilot in the front seat. Through “crew resource management,” she learns how to respond in life-death situations.
“It is something real with great benefit,” she said.
During the next few months, Meir will learn how to operate the robotic arm on the International Space Station through robotics training and will don a spacesuit for the eighth time to practice extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalking.
“The childhood vision I always had was being in a spacesuit looking back toward the earth,” she said, expressing hope a spacewalk will be included in a future assignment. Getting used to the awkward feel of the pressurized spacesuit is “an amazing thing. It’s incredibly exciting.”
In the classroom, candidates learn not only how systems on the space station function — from electronics to communications — but also how to repair the equipment.
“In everything we do we have such great support staff,” Meir said. “We’re the face you see, but there are so many people involved.” Her admiration for NASA support staff reflects the appreciation she feels for mentors throughout her career as a scientist.
Meir is one of four women and two civilians in her class of eight, six of whom come from military backgrounds.
“We have become a family,” she said, adding they enjoy spending free time together, as well as time at work. The group includes pilots, an army physician, a flight test engineer, an electrical engineer, and a scientist — Meir.
After graduating from Caribou High School as valedictorian of the class of 1995, Meir earned a bachelor of arts degree in biology from Brown University in Rhode Island in 1999, a master of science degree in space studies from International Space University in France in 2000 and a doctorate in marine biology (diving physiology) from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in 2009.
“In everything she did she was a perfectionist,” her mother, Ulla-Britt Meir, said, recalling her daughter’s excitement after attending a summer space camp at Purdue University between eighth and ninth grade. “We didn’t think [her dream] would materialize because the competition was unreal, but she stuck to it.”
From 2000 to 2003, she worked for Lockheed Martin’s Human Research Facility supporting human physiology research on the space shuttle and International Space Station. She participated in research flights on NASA’s reduced gravity aircraft and served as an aquanaut crewmember in the Aquarius underwater habitat for the Fourth NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations mission.
Her doctoral degree research focused on oxygen depletion in the diving physiology of emperor penguins in Antarctica and elephant seals in northern California. Her post-doctoral research took her to the University of British Columbia to study how bar-headed geese fly in low-oxygen conditions. She used a wind tunnel to simulate the low-oxygen levels the geese endure in their biannual migrations across the Himalayas.
Her knowledge of how animals adapt to low-oxygen conditions attracted the attention of a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston with an interest in applying it to anesthetized humans. She accepted a position as assistant professor of anesthesia at the Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts General Hospital in 2012 where she continued her research on the physiology of animals in extreme environments until she received the call from NASA in June 2013.
“I was really shocked when I got the phone call,” she said, remembering her disappointment in 2009 when she was a finalist, but was not selected. She had accepted she might not have another opportunity to fulfill her dream and felt fortunate to have a career in physiology that fulfills and rewards her.
“Looks like the second time’s a charm,” Janet Kavandi said, calling from Houston on behalf of the selection committee. There was a long silence while Meir processed the meaning of the words: The dream she had nurtured more than 30 years was reality.
“It’s a matter of odds,” she said. “Timing is everything.” But it’s more than that. Meir is propelled by a belief that “the only answer is to do what you love and do it really well.
“Do what excites you,” she said. “Make sure you are following your heart.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.