CARIBOU, Maine — Dr. Jessica Meir overcame seemingly insurmountable odds on her journey to becoming an astronaut. But growing up in this northern Aroostook community, she knew what she wanted to be since she was 5 years old and persisted until she was able to make her dream come true.
On Tuesday, the valedictorian of the Caribou High School Class of 1995 returned to her alma mater to speak to students about the importance of working hard to achieve their own dreams.
The Caribou High School band played John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme as Meir walked on to the stage and received a standing ovation from the crowd.
The 38-year-old indulged the students with anecdotes about her life and training as she encouraged them to pursue their goals.
“Spacewalks are one of the most challenging things that we do,” she said. “You weigh over 400 pounds when you have the space suit on. It’s pressurized, so every movement feels like you’re squeezing an exercise ball. It takes a lot of training, and we are able to mimic microgravity through a system of weights and floats that a team of divers control.”
This training at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston is designed to duplicate what it will feel like when going on a real space walk.
“This was the image I had in my head when I was a kid, so getting in that space suit was an amazing experience,” she said.
As to when she might make her first foray into space, Meir said she thought the first mission she might go on would likely involve a trip to the International Space Station.
She also referred to a few private companies such as SpaceX and Boeing, which are partnering with NASA “to build vehicles that we can launch from the U.S. again. They are building us new vehicles and test flights should be happening in 2017 or 2018, so we will be launching from the U.S. again soon. It’s likely that some people in my [astronaut] class will have their first flight in one of these new vehicles.”
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 was an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston when she and seven others were picked by NASA in June 2013 to join the space agency’s astronaut corps.
Despite years of education and training to get here, Meir still has moments of disbelief when she thinks about working in her chosen profession.
“I can’t even tell you how many times I wake up in the morning and remember what I do,” she said. “You get into a routine with your job, but I still have these surreal and humbling moments where you realize what you’re doing.”
But when Meir first applied to NASA in 2009, she was rejected. Nevertheless, she stayed resilient.
“It didn’t work out for me that time,” Meir said. “I was told that I did a great job and that I didn’t do anything wrong, but I wasn’t selected. At that point, I could have easily given up and decided not to apply again because I didn’t want to get rejected again. The entire process of applying and interviewing is really lengthy and consuming, mentally and psychologically, and at the time I honestly thought it would be the same result.
“Luckily, I stuck to it and persevered. Just in the back of my head, knowing that it was the dream I’ve had for my entire life, I couldn’t not apply. I just wasn’t prepared to give up on it yet.”
While proud of being an astronaut, Meir also emphasized the importance of everyone at NASA fulfilling the mission.
“As astronauts, we’re so lucky to be the iconic image that people think about when they think about space flight. The bigger thing is all the other people that work there. There are thousands of people helping us do the things we do, and we know nothing compared to what they do. We’re just an operator up in space doing what they’ve trained us to do. We have such an amazing team at NASA,” she said.
Meir was invited to Maine by the Challenger Learning Center of Maine to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the final flight of the Challenger Space Shuttle. She accepted and is scheduled to speak Wednesday, Jan. 27, to hundreds of middle school students from around the state at the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono.
Since she was coming for that event, Meir said she decided to take the opportunity to visit with family and friends in Caribou and to talk to students at the high school.
On Tuesday, she left those students with a message about the importance of expanding their outlook and perception when working toward a lifelong dream.
“It’s important to think outside of the box and expand your viewpoint,” said Meir. “If we start thinking about the space-time continuum from today toward eternity and think about what’s happening right now, this week, and everything else that seems so important right now: the outfit you wore today, the grade you got on Mr. Atcheson’s history exam, what you’re doing this weekend, all of these things seem so important. Nonetheless, it’s important to realize there is so much space outside of that little box.
“Here we are up in Caribou, which is my home as well as yours, but when you think about your home, you usually think about your house, your neighborhood, and your family, and when you look at this fragile blue ball from outer space, that’s home too. It’s everybody’s home,” she said. “For me, that’s always been my dream: being in space and seeing this giant blue ball below me.”