CARIBOU, Maine — Ulla Meir stood at the microphone on the stage of the Caribou auditorium, her back turned to the crowd of nearly 800 students and faculty gathered to watch a live interview with her daughter NASA astronaut and Caribou High School alum, Jessica Meir.
“I hear you loud and clear mom, how do you hear me?” Meir asked through the live stream video conference as the audience burst into excited applause. Ulla’s expression lit up as her daughter’s face appeared on the wide screen before her.
Retreating back into the crowd, Ulla continued to smile warmly at her daughter from her seat as a young student took her place on the stage, ready to ask the first question of the interview.
Hundreds of people watched remotely but only a lucky few students in grades three through 12 got the chance to ask Meir questions about living and working on the International Space Station on Tuesday morning.
Some questioned how she overcame obstacles to become an astronaut. One asked her about her best memories of living in Caribou, which she responded were growing up in nature, running outside and playing with her friends.
A third-grader asked if she missed her family while in space.
“Well I better say yes right? Because my mom’s right there with you,” Meir jokingly replied.
“And of course the answer is yes, I do miss my family and friends,” she continued. “But the nice thing is, and one of the most important things about me being up here is, that I’m trying to do my best to share this adventure and share this mission with my family, my friends and with all of you down there.”
Nearly 25 years ago, Meir had a dream to journey into the unknown of space and go on a spacewalk.
Now, her alma mater is using that dream to inspire students to pursue their own aspirations and have the courage to think big while living in a small town, just like Meir once did.
For the teachers and administrators at CHS, the event was much more than just a quick 20-minute interview with an astronaut — it was an opportunity to show kids what they can accomplish.
Meir held up the same values during her interview with CHS students Tuesday morning. She told the students to go after their dreams and about the importance of persevering through challenges that may stand in their way.
Sometimes they will fail, she explained, but they must learn to push through.
“If you aren’t failing, you probably aren’t trying hard enough,” Meir said.
Many students have already learned to go after their goals no matter how big or small, just from hearing about Meir’s own experience. Some eighth-grade boys shared dreams of becoming an NFL player or Navy Seal or a UFC fighter.
For student Landon Fleming, the chance to hear from a former CHS student-turned-NASA astronaut was so surreal, it almost seemed not possible. “It feels like it’s fake at first,” he said.
The students submitted questions to ask Meir as part of their English classes, and their teachers selected the best ones to send to NASA for approval, CHS Principal Travis Barnes said.
He said he first started the work of applying for a NASA inflight interview with an astronaut in January after he heard that Meir might go to space.
“It’s been a long, long process,” Barnes said.
The students had just 20 minutes to speak with Meir, although Barnes said that interviews with astronauts are typically 30 to 40 minutes long.
“It’s 20 minutes that we would never have,” he said.
To make themselves stand out among the competition, the school focused their proposal around Meir’s dream of going on a spacewalk that she had written in her 1995 high school yearbook. Then, they organized a full day’s worth of educational activities following the interview to encourage students to think about what dreams they want to achieve themselves.
“It’s inspiring to kids [and] inspiring to teachers,” Barnes said.
While not all students in the Caribou school district got to interact first-hand with Meir, all 1350 took part in drawing pictures of their dreams. Along the school’s hallways, students’ drawings hung from the walls with the prompt, “What is Your Spacewalk?”
Some students drew pictures of ballet slippers on a stage, or scientific beakers with the title, “Biomedical Engineer” above. One student drew a logging truck, another a picture of a police officer in uniform.
Throughout the day, the students took part in various workshops, learning about goal-setting, STEM programs, physical fitness and other space-related activities, and heard personal experiences related by Meir’s mother Ulla Meir, and.her sister Becka Meir Playford of watching Meir’s journey to space
Students and faculty wore specially designed T-shirts with the phrase, “Space Mission: Caribou” on the front as they moved through the halls from one activity to the next.
CHS faculty used the experience to inspire students to believe in their dreams, the way Meir had since she was just 5 years old.
Meir’s mother and sister told stories about Meir’s childhood and shared a story from when she was young. In the first grade, Meir’s teacher asked the students to draw their dream job.
Meir drew a picture of a moon with an astronaut standing on it, her mother said.
Decades later, Meir’s journey is a symbol of inspiration to Maine students, especially ones from smaller towns. This was the real hope all along, Barnes said, to teach kids the lesson: “Yes you can, from Caribou, Maine.”