CARIBOU, Maine — NASA astronaut Jessica Meir spoke Wednesday with Caribou students about her time aboard the International Space Station and her return to Earth amid a global pandemic.
Meir, who graduated from Caribou High School in 1995, said that while astronauts are not allowed to travel for public appearances because of the pandemic, she hopes to make an in-person visit to her former school soon.
“I’m sorry it’s not going to be quite as exciting as when I was in space, and my hair is much more boring now,” she said, referring to her last video call with students from aboard the International Space Station.
Students asked Meir questions during the Zoom meeting, with the first being what was the worst problem she encountered in space.
Meir said that during a spacewalk, her crewmate Christina Koch’s lights came off her helmet shortly after the pair had left the space station.
“When the sun is shining, you don’t really need the light so much, but of course we’re going around the planet every 90 minutes,” Meir said. “So we’re going in and out of complete sunlight and complete darkness, and when it’s dark you need those lights.”
The lights can’t be reinstalled while on a spacewalk, because astronauts need to take their gloves off to reattach the device. Meir said they weighed the advice from the team on the ground, then were able to detach the lights, secure them with a tether and allow Koch to use Meir’s lights or the sun when it was available.
“It made things much more interesting for us, and it’s just a really important lesson to remember that you always have to be ready and agile to adapt to a problem, because that’s just life. Things usually don’t go according to plan, so you have to be ready for that,” she said.
When a student asked if at any point she regretted going into space, Meir said, “absolutely not.”
“It was something I thought about doing since I was 5 years old,” she said. “I said this many times during the mission, but it was even more incredible than I’d ever imagined, which is really saying a lot because I had some pretty big expectations. So no regrets, and like I mentioned I would’ve rather stayed up there longer.”
Returning to Earth was actually more difficult than going into space because it can take a while for the body to readjust to gravity, she said. The lack of gravity in space creates more separation between the discs in an astronaut’s backbone, resulting in lingering back pain once the person returns to Earth.
“You can literally feel gravity, because your body has adapted to months and months of not having it,” she said. “Coming back isn’t fun. You’re really tired as you’re readapting and I kept saying ‘Man, gravity is overrated.’ My neighbor put it pretty well, he’d say ‘What’s wrong Jessica, has gravity got you down?’”
Meir also had to adjust to life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which she said was strange for the returning astronauts to wrap their heads around.
“Sometimes we thought that we were in some bad science fiction movie where they pan to the space station and Earth gets hit by a meteor, everyone goes extinct, and it’s up to us to repopulate the entire planet,” she said. “Luckily things weren’t that bad, but coming back was definitely an adjustment.”
Another student asked if Meir thought aliens were real. Meir said that even though some people may laugh at that question, or the thought of aliens, that it was a great inquiry.
“This universe is so big that we would be pretty naive to think that we are the only planet that has life on it,” she said. “I am certain that there is some kind of life — it might not be exactly like us, it might be completely different, and my guess is that it doesn’t look like the aliens on TV. … But unfortunately if you also think again on that time and space dimension we might not ever actually have any proof of that because we might not be able to get that signal back, and to have all the planets kind of literally align so that we had knowledge of each other.”
She left the students with the advice that it is important to persevere, stay patient, go outside of their comfort zones and take risks. Meir said she failed the first time she interviewed to become an astronaut, but that it became an important life lesson.
“I could have given up then and said well it’s not worth it. I don’t want to go through that all again,” she said. “It takes such a psychological toll to go through the selection process, and what if I don’t get it again? But I didn’t say that. I applied again, and that’s the only reason why I’m here. So remember to persevere and that it does take that hard work, but I promise you that in the end it will be worth it.”