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Until now, Aroostook County native Jessica Meir has watched the unfolding coronavirus pandemic from orbit.
That changes on Friday, when she and two fellow astronauts return to a changed planet.
“It has been very surreal … to watch this situation unfold on the ground. … It’s a bit difficult for us to believe that we are truly going back to a different planet,” Meir said Wednesday during an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
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Meir and her crewmates, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and American astronaut Andrew Morgan, have been for the most part insulated from the effects of the pandemic at the International Space Station, some 250 miles above the Earth.
Meir, who is from Caribou, arrived on Sept. 25, 2019, at the space station aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft with Skripochka and Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri, who returned to Earth eight days later. That was almost six months before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.
Astronauts stationed in space have to find ways to stave off “cabin fever,” and Meir shared a few tips for those on Earth struggling with prolonged periods of “social distancing.” What’s important, Meir told Colbert, is to keep a routine, get exercise, be kind to others and find time to have a little fun.
“Every now and then we try to keep things light and maintain our senses of humor. All of these things really help us function together as a happy team living in isolation,” Meir said.
Meir, the valedictorian of Caribou High School’s Class of 1995, was among three women and four men selected from 6,100 applicants in 2013 for NASA’s 21st class of astronauts. She is the third Mainer, and first Maine woman, to enter into outer space.
Meir made history in October 2019 when she and astronaut Christina Koch embarked on the first all-female spacewalk to replace a newly installed battery unit that had failed. It came almost seven months after NASA scrapped its planned all-female spacewalk by Koch and Anne McClain because it did not have two properly fitted space suits.
Meir told Colbert that she felt “fortunate” to be among the few humans to ever venture into space.
“To be looking down at the planet from up here, it really does change your perspective as a human, and I think it would be very important for the rest of the human race to experience that as well,” she said.
Meir, Morgan and Skripochka are scheduled to depart from the space station at 9:53 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Thursday and to land at 1:17 a.m. EDT Friday southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan, according to NASA.
Their departure will reduce the human population in space to three. Fellow Maine native Christopher Cassidy, 50, of York will become Expedition 63 commander at the space station until his own departure in the fall. He arrived there last week with Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.
Meir told Colbert she wished she could stay at the space station — even before the pandemic started. But Meir said the length of her mission is determined by the design life of the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft. It has a design life of about 200 days when docked at the space station.
“So we need to get back relatively quickly,” she said. “It’ll be great to see everyone on the ground again, even if it is from a distance.”