FROM THE CURIOSITY DESK
5:00 am
Sat June 22, 2013

NASA Astronaut-in-Training Jessica Meir Slips Surly Bonds of Boston for Space

Jessica Meir
Jessica Meir
Credit Edgar B. Herwick III / WGBH

Jessica Meir is an accomplished woman. A graduate of Brown University, she has an advanced degree from the International Space University, and earned her doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Meir is an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, where her specialty is studying animals in extreme – low oxygen environments. But, only for the next month or so. That's because she just learned that her life's dream is about to come true.

Meir is one of just eight people selected from the more than 6,000 who applied to be members of NASA's 2013 Astronaut Candidate Class. Before she slips the surly bonds of Boston for her new home at NASA headquarters in Houston, The Curiosity Desk sat down with Meir to discuss a 35-year journey that has taken her from a remote town in rural Maine to deep below the ice in the Antarctic and, now, the edge of the cosmos.

You are an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. What does that entail?

I do research on animals that live in extreme environments. So, trying to understand the physiology that underlies these amazing behaviors found in the animal kingdom. So, my experience is mainly with diving animals and high-altitude animals: Looking at how amazing divers like emperor penguins and elephant seals can dive for as deep and as long as they do and specifically how they manage their oxygen stores to do that.

That work hasn't taken you to outer space, but it must have taken you to some pretty extreme places. Is there an experience that stands out?

Diving in the Antarctic. It's really an incredible experience. You dive through ice holes that you drill in the sea ice – the sea ice can be three, six, nine, sometimes 17 feet thick. And you go down through this hole, you're wearing a dry suit and all this gear, which keeps you warmer than you'd expect. At first there is slush everywhere in the hole and you can't see anything and you think, 'Oh my God, what am I getting myself into?' But then you get down below the ice and you can see hundreds of feet, and the light is coming in through the holes in the ice that you came through, and you have this 'Highway to Heaven'-type lighting effect. And it's incredibly striking. On the surface, the Antarctic is devoid of color. You have this white and austere landscape. And then suddenly when you get underwater there is all this life. These brightly colored animals. Giant isopods – those pillbug type creatures - and giant pycnogonids – the seas spiders – and really big sponges and bright red sea stars. It's really an amazing environment down there.

That's a long way from where you grew up in Caribou, Maine, which bills itself as the northeastern most city in the country. What was is it like there?

When I was growing up, there was there was about 10,000 people living there – it's a bit smaller now – so it definitely has a small-town feel. Not only is it on the small side, but there are no major cities around, so you are also really quite removed. I was the youngest of five kids and we had a great time running around outside and I had some amazing influences, great teachers, amazing family and friends, so for me it was a great place to grow up.

How were the night skies?

I always appreciated the sky and looking up at the stars, but I do remember coming back to Caribou after not being there for a while – I think it was in college – and I remember thinking, "Wow, I can't believe I didn't appreciate this even more than I did."

When did you get interested in becoming an astronaut?

I think it was in first grade. We were asked to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up and I remember distinctly drawing an astronaut. And I think I've always said it since then. I used to joke, 'All kids say they want to be astronauts, but maybe I wasn't creative enough to come up with anything else and change my mind along the way.'

Has it been something you have pursued seriously since elementary school?

Everyone knows it's quite a small chance to be selected to be an astronaut, even if it is your dream. And so I was really lucky to find this other career that I embarked upon that was really, really fascinating, and made me happy as well.

But you still kept a foot in the space world?

Since I wanted to be an astronaut, I always tried to involve myself in space related activities. First, I went to Purdue University Space Camp, which was a lot of fun. I did a summer program called the Space Life Sciences Training Program, which is put on by the Kennedy Space Center. You get immersed in life down there. You do your own research project and get all kinds of hands-on training, meeting NASA scientists as well as astronauts. And I also got to participate in NASA's reduced gravity flight program, and that was really remarkable. That was the first time I experienced weightlessness. I went to the International Space University in Strasbourg, France for a Masters degree. And then I went on to work at the NASA Johnson Space Center supporting human physiology research.

You'd applied to be an astronaut before, and you got very close last time around. Did you worry that you'd missed your chance?

In 2009, I made it to the final round and it was very exciting, and the first time I felt, 'Wow, maybe there's a chance of this actually happening.' So, of course, it was incredibly disappointing not to be selected, but it's a very humbling experience to go down there and interview and meet all the amazingly remarkable people around you from such diverse backgrounds. And the other candidates are just outstanding. And when you go down there and see that you're like, 'Wow!' But luckily, I had another career that really made me happy and so I stuck with that.

And, yet, you applied again.

No matter what I was doing, I couldn't not apply.

How did you find out that you'd been selected?

Janet Kavandi – who is an astronaut and in charge of the selection – she calls. I was sitting at my desk that morning and I knew that the calls were coming in. I was getting emails from other people I knew who had already received their calls. And I'm just sitting at my desk, staring at my phone, and my heart is absolutely racing just wondering which way it was going to turn out. Then the number popped up and I knew the prefix was a Houston number, and so I answered the phone and it was Janet. And she said to me 'Jessica, second time's a charm.' And I knew exactly what that meant and I think I said, 'Really?!' (laughs) Because it was all just rather hard to believe, but incredibly exciting.

Your class is historic in that there are four women – yourself included – among the eight selected. That represents the highest percentage of female members in a NASA class ever. Does that make it even more special?

It is definitely rewarding and it makes it more special. This week is the 30th anniversary of Sally Ride's first flight – the first American woman in space - and it's also right around the 50th anniversary of the first female ever in space - who was a Russian. So it's very exciting to be a part of this class. I think NASA made the choices based on getting the best people for the job. They weren't necessarily thinking, 'We have to have 50 percent women and 50 percent men. It's really uplifting to me to see how far we have come. It's great that this isn't a challenge anymore for women. We can get there, too. And it is important to me for inspiring that next generation of scientists and explorers — especially women.

The Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Not all of the 49 current astronauts have been to space. Are you concerned that you won't ever get the chance to go into space?

NASA still has a very active human space-flight program, and so we're regularly flying up with the Russians on the Soyuz to the International Space Station. Even when we had the shuttle we were still rotating flights between the shuttle and the Soyuz. Our new class of candidates will be training for potential long-duration missions to the international space station, and then perhaps even beyond. NASA is now trying to think about making plans for going to asteroids and Mars and beyond. It would be incredibly exciting to play a role in any of that.

Do you have a preference? Mars or an asteroid?

I guess I'd have to say Mars to that one.

OK, so if NASA says, 'astronauts, we're going to Mars. Who wants to be on the mission.' Do you raise your hand?

We'll see when we get there exactly what the options are. The only options right now are probably not things I'd sign up for (laughs) but when NASA gets there, I'm sure they will do it right and I'd love to be on that mission.

So what happens now?

We have a really short turn around time, we have to report to Houston in our new office on August 12. Once you become an astronaut, you really leave everything else behind. You become a civil servant working for the government as an astronaut, going through the training and then the missions and the jobs that are assigned to you. So I am incredibly excited for this new adventure but a little piece of me is – of course – also sad to be leaving this field of comparative physiology that did make me very happy, and I have a lot of amazing colleagues in this field, but this was always my dream, and so I'm really, really excited for this next chapter in my life.

What do you know about the training?

Well it's two years. We haven't received the entire training plan, so all the details will have to be worked out when I get down there, but I do know we will have a diverse set of very very interesting activities. I'm really looking forward to it, it's going to be really exciting. We'll have things like survival training, lots of Russian language training, training on various space systems, and then I'm really looking forward to flight training.

What is especially appealing about flight training?

Well, I have my private pilot's license. I always wanted to be a pilot. I think I started saying that I wanted to fly airplanes in high school, and I started taking flying lessons during my undergraduate years at Brown. I don't know what it is exactly, I just like being up there. You get these amazing views and the experience … well, actually, maybe it has to do with the fact that I used to dream that I could fly. Not in an airplane but that I could physically fly. That would be the ultimate.

Flying planes, diving under the ice in Antarctica and now, potentially, outer space. Doesn't any of this stuff ever scare you?

I think, especially the first time – you're a bit nervous. But the thing is – and I think this carries over into space flight – you are very well trained and prepared for it. So you know how to handle yourself if something comes up. You know what to do. So you don't get too scared.

Do you consider yourself a risk taker?

I guess people would maybe classify me as a risk taker to some extent. But I don't take unnecessary or extreme risks. I guess I see it as controlled risks. It's challenging, but so rewarding and exciting that it's definitely worth doing.

Going into space certainly is a 'controlled risk.' Why is it important that we continue to take that risk and explore?

Exploration has always been a part of the human essence. And for me, it's been a big part of my life. Going down to the Antarctic or going scuba diving. And part of it is about finding out more from a basic science perspective. Learning more. You never know where those discoveries are going to come from, so if we don't explore, I think we're really limiting ourselves.

OK for the last 30 years you've been dreaming about becoming an astronaut. Now that it's happened, what is you new life's dream?

Definitely getting into space. This is the first step at getting there, and our class will be training for International Space Station missions and possibly things beyond that, so I have that to look forward to and work toward. After that I'm not really sure what would be left.

Are there things about Boston's neighborhoods - or your town -  that you've always wondered about? A question that you want to team up with the Curiosity Desk to answer? Email the Curiosity Desk at curiositydesk@wgbh.org