Caribou native finding little time to celebrate selection for space mission as training continues
CARIBOU, Maine — NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, a Caribou High School graduate, is looking forward to and excited about fulfilling her lifelong dream of traveling in space.
NASA announced on Wednesday that Meir is scheduled to embark on her first space mission Sept. 25, co-piloting the Russian Soyuz capsule 220 miles to the International Space Station. She is expected to return to Earth in the spring of 2020.
“It’s pretty hard to believe,” Meir said in a phone interview on April 18. “This is something I’ve dreamed about for my entire life. Now I’m one step closer, making it even more surreal.”
The 40-year-old, who was selected among the three women and four men to become astronauts in 2013 out of 6,100 applicants, has spent the last six years training for this moment. Before that, she served as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Meir’s educational achievements include a bachelor’s degree in biology from Brown University in Rhode Island, a master’s degree in space studies from the International Space University, in Illkirch, France, and a doctorate in marine biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, according to NASA.
Her training for this specific flight began last January, long before she was chosen for the space station mission.
“I was training as a backup crew member,” she said, “which started in Russia. I was spending most of my time in Russia last year, training to fly as a copilot.”
The training included learning how to launch, rendezvous, dock, and land the space capsule and all about operating and maintaining the space station systems.
Since NASA selected her to be an astronaut six years ago, Meir said she has trained to perform numerous tasks that might be required of inhabitants of the space station, from working on thermal controls, making electrical repairs, and operating the robotic arm to doing maintenance work such as fixing lights and repairing toilets.
“We can’t call a plumber or electrician while we’re up there,” she said. “We have to be able to do all of that on our own.”
The astronaut training ultimately prepares them to deal with any unexpected situations, and includes numerous emergency training drills so they are prepared to tackle any emergencies in space.
Once in the space station, astronauts will be in constant communication with the ground crew, who are primarily responsible for organizing their daily schedules.
“The ground crew is responsible for timelining every five minutes of the day,” Meir said. “They have a great plan for us, and we just open up our calendars and execute that plan every day.”
While she is trying to find time to celebrate her selection for this flight, Meir said she is being kept busy by continued preparations and training, and going back and forth between Russia and the U.S.
“I am trying to enjoy and revel in it,” she said.
Meir’s assignment on the space station will consist of conducting a variety of scientific experiments “ranging from physiology to medicine and protein growth.”
While she is looking forward to advancing scientific knowledge via these experiments, Meir said she is particularly excited about the possibility of going for a space walk outside the station.
“There is no guarantee with our schedule,” she said, “but there is a very high probability that I will be able to come out of the hatch in my own space suit. That will really be game changing as a perspective shift in terms of how insignificant we as humans are in the solar system, and how precious and fragile the earth is and how we should do our best to protect it.”
For the young people of Caribou, or Maine and the world in general, including those aspiring to become astronauts, Meir said the most important advice she can offer is “to find that one thing you’re really passionate about,” and work hard to make that dream a reality.
“I truly believe that if you’re not passionate about something, you won’t find success and you won’t be happy doing it,” Meir said. “So find that passion, and work hard to obtain it.”
She concluded by thanking friends, family, and mentors in Aroostook County and Maine for helping her reach the stars.
“I certainly didn’t get here all on my own,” said the valedictorian of Caribou High School’s Class of 1995. “It all started with my incredibly supportive family and friends and all the amazing teachers and mentors I had starting from my early days in Caribou. It really made a difference and I hope I am able to share the mission with everyone on the ground. We do a lot of outreach, and I look forward to talking with some people while I’m up there.”