PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — In my 24 years on Earth, through a stroke of luck and circumstance, I’ve interviewed actors, athletes and even a member of the British Parliament. But Tuesday was the first time I had ever spoken to an astronaut.
Jessica Meir was born and raised in Caribou — a short drive from a city I now call home — and had a long career as a scientist before being selected by NASA in 2013. Meir is perhaps most famous for having been one half — along with Christina Koch — of the first all-female spacewalk on Oct. 18, 2019. But her life and career go far beyond that landmark moment.
Meir’s interview with the Bangor Daily News as part of our BDN Events Online series is presented in abridged form below.
DMJ: How did your upbringing in Caribou prepare you for space?
JM: People ask me that all the time: ‘Was there some kind of event or memory that you had when you really decided you wanted to be an astronaut?’ And I always wish I had one event.
But I attribute it to everything, really. A whole conglomeration of factors of when I was growing up. I started saying [I wanted to be an astronaut] when I was 5 years old. So I think it was a combination of this sense of exploration and awe for understanding more about nature and the world around me.
And of course, Aroostook County is a great place for all of that, with all of the forests and lakes and the incredible night sky. I remember going to see the stars in Thomas Park [in nearby New Sweden] and even my own backyard in Caribou. Of course, back then, I took it for granted: I didn’t know how special of a place [Aroostook County] was without light pollution.
DMJ: Many people know about the all-female spacewalk with Christina Koch, but many don’t know that the walk was somewhat spontaneous. When did the momentousness of the occasion hit you?
It was, really, an evolutionary process for myself. Those first few days at the space station, you actually feel like a newborn. You have to figure out how to brush your teeth, how to go to the bathroom, how to eat and drink. All of that, of course, is so different without gravity.
Then, within just the first couple of weeks, I knew I had the spacewalk coming up. Spacewalks are the riskiest thing that we do and the most challenging, both mentally and physically. And because of that, they demand 100 percent focus and concentration.
The [all-female spacewalk] was unplanned on two levels: it wasn’t as if NASA sought out to say ‘we need to do the first all-female spacewalk.’ That’s not how we operate here at NASA — we operate to complete a mission.
On the [International Space Station], we’ve had several women now, and we had two women at once. We’re doing a lot of spacewalks, and it just so happened to make sense that this spacewalk was assigned to Christina and I.
Of course, after the fact, it should be celebrated. And I think it took me until after the fact to think about it in that context as well. I had to focus completely on the mission at hand and didn’t really have time to think about the more philosophical things or its historical significance.
But after the fact, I’ve thought about it a lot, and it’s become so much to me. And that’s for a few different reasons. The first is not because of any personal achievement for Christina or me, but more about paying tributes to those generations of women and other minorities that were the ones truly pushing boundaries and breaking those glass ceilings.
If it weren’t for their hard work when we really didn’t have a seat at the table, Christina and I wouldn’t have been out there that day.
Christina and I feel it is our responsibility to keep sharing this and keep inspiring so that hopefully, one day for little girls that are growing up now, it won’t even be remarkable that two women are doing a spacewalk. Because it will just be normal.
DMJ: When you came back from space in April, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. How was it to return to an Earth that was so different from the one you left?
It was certainly jarring. It was just such a sudden change — I think there was a little bit more buildup for people down there on Earth.
For us — I launched in September 2019 — and then to see it unfold, it was very surreal to see that from the space station given that we were so removed from that.
After our crewmates left in February, there were three of us left up there. For us to think that we were the only three humans that weren’t currently susceptible to this pandemic, and all the [7.8 billion people] on the planet were, it was really difficult to wrap our heads around that reality.
And when you are on the space station, we do have access to some news … but you’re not completely inundated like you are on Earth with a phone in your hand. So you’re not really getting those constant updates.
That also made it surreal, because we are so busy going about our day, and we are looking down on this beautiful planet. We can’t see evidence of [the pandemic] from our viewpoint. So, it was really difficult for us to process.
When our crewmate Chris Cassidy, the other astronaut from Maine, joined us just at the end of our mission — we overlapped for about eight days. He had this talk with us before leaving, saying, ‘you really have to prepare for this. It’s a totally different planet.’
For me, like a lot of people are experiencing, there’s this underlying stress to everything that we’re doing. And I experienced that too: not only in having to leave a place, the space station, where I was happier than I’d ever been, and then coming back here and not being able to see my mom given all the restrictions.
It has been difficult to adjust to, and I found what helped me was returning to nature. I was able to travel a little bit — at least access to nature is one of the things we can still enjoy with COVID.
I traveled to see my sister, and we did some hiking in Colorado, and then I saw my brother in California and did more hiking and some more ocean activities, to really kind of immerse myself in nature again.
DMJ: You’re a bit of a Renaissance woman, studying physiology, space studies and marine biology, among other subjects. What do you want to do next — do you want to be part of these new frontiers we see in space exploration?
Absolutely. I’ve definitely been bitten by the space bug, and I’ve thought a lot about returning to space since I came back. I think once you’ve experienced it, that constant weightlessness, it just feels so special.
Right now is a very exciting time for our program here at NASA and really for the entire world and all the international space programs and in making space more accessible to everyday people.
We at NASA are working to put the next man and woman on the Moon. It’s not up to me, but I would definitely volunteer to be one of those crew members who would return to the Moon, if not to be involved from the ground.
I’m not sure what my next mission will look like: it could be with the space station, could be involvement in the [Artemis III] mission … there’s a lot of exciting prospects out there, and I hope to be part of them.
Viewer Elizabeth: How did you go from studying penguins in Antarctica to wanting to be an astronaut?
I would just say that I really followed my passion and continued to work toward this lifelong goal of becoming an astronaut.
You know, I certainly didn’t have it all planned out: life kind of takes you in different directions, different opportunities present themselves at different times. And there’s so much luck in all of this.
I just kept asking questions, and I think that’s one of the most important reasons for where I am today. To keep that scientific curiosity and working toward your goals. But most importantly, to focus on something that you are truly passionate about. If what you’re doing doesn’t really capture that spark and enthusiasm, then I don’t think you will truly be able to excel at it, and you won’t be happy about it either.
Viewer Ellen from Bangor: Did you ever feel claustrophobic in space? What was that like, and how did you deal with it?
I don’t think many astronauts are claustrophobic — that would be kind of a hazard for the job.
I’m not claustrophobic, luckily for me. On the space station, you actually have quite a bit of room. The internal volume is about the equivalent of a five-bedroom house. I think even if you were claustrophobic, you’d still probably feel okay.
Viewer Adeline H: Do stars and constellations look different when you are in space?
We do have a good view of the night sky when we are in space. A lot of time we spend at the space station we spend looking down on the Earth, but if you look all around you, you see the stars everywhere.
So you see the same kind of constellations. You see the Milky Way, you see the Moon. But one of the big differences is that it looks a little bit different — it looks more clear. Because on Earth you have to look through our atmosphere, which distorts the light and degrades the image a little bit.
Viewer Kristen Lagasse, a science teacher at Fort Street Elementary in Mars Hill: Would you ever want to return to Aroostook County?
Absolutely. One of the best talks I gave before my mission was a trip I took up in Caribou at my old school. And that is so meaningful to us, as astronauts — we try to get back to our hometowns, because it does make a more meaningful connection.
It makes things more real when people can see someone who came from the same background and place as they did. Normally, I would have already gone up to the school and spoken to them — that’s part of the post-flight tour when you come back from space. But of course, none of that travel is happening because of COVID.
So, I’m really hoping that things can get more back to normal and we can start traveling again to do those kinds of appearances — we are still waiting for permission to do that. Hopefully next year, when things are better, hopefully we’ll have a vaccine, and I can come up there and speak to the schools.