When she was 5, Jessica Meir drew a picture of herself as an astronaut. In her high school yearbook, she wrote that she wanted to go for a spacewalk.
Six years ago NASA selected her for astronaut training. This month, the 42-year-old Caribou native will launch on her first mission to the International Space Station.
“It’s a little bit surreal. It’s been a lot of work, and I’m very excited for this dream to come true,” Meir said last week during a phone interview from Star City, Russia, where she has been training for her mission.
Meir said she is “incredibly humbled” to be part of a historic mission that includes the first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates. Meir is making history herself as the first woman from Maine — and only the third person from Maine ever — to go on a space flight. York native Chris Cassidy went to the space station in 2009 and 2013 and later served as chief astronaut, and Charles Hobaugh, who was born in Bar Harbor, made three space flights between 2001 and 2009.
A flight engineer, Meir will co-pilot the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft, scheduled to launch on Sept. 25 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Also aboard will be cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Hazzaa Ali Almansoori of the United Arab Emirates’ Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.
After the six-hour flight, they will join six other crew members currently aboard, including NASA astronauts Nick Hague, Christina Koch and Andrew Morgan. For eight days there will be nine astronauts on board, three more than is typical for the space station, after which three of them will return to Earth.
Meir will spend six months on the space station, which orbits 220 miles above Earth. The experiments she will conduct range from studying gravity’s effect on the human body to protein crystal growth to radiation’s effects on humans. There is also maintenance work to do, opening up the possibility that she will get to go on the spacewalk she’s dreamed of for decades.
“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to go out the hatch,” Meir said. “That’s when you really feel like an astronaut.”
It took three tries for Meir to be chosen for the highly selective astronaut training program, but in 2013 she was among eight people chosen from a pool of 6,000 applicants. At the time, she was working as an assistant professor at Harvard and moved to Houston for a training program at the Johnson Space Center.
She has been training intensely for the past six years, learning skills that range from fixing a toilet in space to navigating a 400-pound spacesuit during a spacewalk.
That Meir has reached her goal of becoming an astronaut and traveling to space comes as no surprise to people in Caribou, where Meir was the valedictorian of the Caribou High School class of 1995, played three sports and performed in school bands.
“This is a girl who, from early elementary school, wanted to be an astronaut,” said Kenneth Atcheson, who has stayed in touch with Meir since teaching her in high school. “I always told her, ‘Someday I’m going to be sitting in a chair on my lawn and you’ll go by. I’ll look up and say, ‘There’s Jessica.’”
‘A PASSION FOR EXPLORATION’
As the youngest of five children in a family of competitive overachievers, Meir always tried to keep up with her brothers and sisters, her mother told the Portland Press Herald in 2013. Her parents inspired her love of nature, as did growing up in rural Aroostook County, Meir said last week.
“It really ignited in me a passion for exploration and appreciation for nature,” Meir said.
Meir’s late father, Josef, was born in Iraq but immigrated to pre-state Israel as a child and later fought in the country’s War of Independence in 1948, Meir told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency this year. He became a doctor and moved to Sweden, where he met and married Meir’s mother, Ulla-britt, who was a nurse. They moved to Maine when Meir’s father accepted a job in Aroostook County.
Meir said she doesn’t know exactly what triggered her interest in space. It could have been her fascination with nature or the clear view of the stars from Aroostook County. Maybe it was the shuttle launches she watched on TV.
By the time she started high school, Meir’s friends and teachers were well aware of her dream of becoming an astronaut.
“She sought out that dream early on and never wavered. I knew that she would be where she is today just because that’s Jessica,” said Joey Cowett, who grew up with Meir in Caribou. “She really utilized her knowledge and intelligence to get to where she is. She put the work in and made it happen.”
That tenacity is one of Meir’s trademarks, say those who knew her, but so is her compassion and loyalty. In high school she played soccer, skied and ran track. She was also a civic leader and a gifted musician who played the flute and later picked up the saxophone, said Vaughn Mclaughlin, Meir’s band director from fourth through 12th grade.
“She’s driven, but she always did it with a smile on her face,” Mclaughlin said, adding that Meir told him she will bring a piccolo with her to the space station and plans to play the saxophone that is already there.
In 2016 Meir was inducted into the Caribou High School Alumni Hall of Fame, along with fellow alumna U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
“To me, Caribou High School was so many things: the soccer team, the band, French club, dances, proms, winter carnivals. Remember those snow sports we would play outside – snow soccer in 6 feet of snow? Who else does that? It was amazing,” Meir said during a Skype call shared during the ceremony, according to a 2016 article in The County newspaper.
“More than anything, Caribou was home,” Meir continued. “Home was full of family, friends and teachers who provided me with countless memories and the foundations of an education that was truly paramount in getting me where I am today.”
After high school, Meir attended Brown University, where she studied biology and played saxophone in the jazz band and flute in the orchestra.
She earned a master’s degree in space studies from the International Space University in France and a doctorate in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. For doctoral research, she studied oxygen depletion in diving emperor penguins in the Antarctic.
Meir later studied high-flying bar-headed geese at the University of British Columbia. The birds migrate twice a year over the world’s tallest mountains, the Himalayas.
For that research, Meir trained a gaggle of goslings from the moment they hatched so they thought she was their mother. They’d follow her around campus, first as Meir walked, then as she rode a bicycle and later a motor scooter. She trained them to fly in a wind tunnel while they wore masks and little backpacks with data monitoring equipment.
By reducing the oxygen in the wind tunnel, Meir was able to determine how little oxygen the geese needed. Meir and other scientists discovered that when they lowered the oxygen the geese breathed, the animals chilled their blood and slowed their metabolism. A study by Meir and her colleagues was published last week in the journal eLife.
Before becoming an astronaut, Meir continued to research the physiology for animals in extreme environments. Her work has taken her on scuba diving expeditions in the Antarctic and Belize, and she was an aquanaut on an exploration mission in Aquarius, an underground research laboratory.
All of that work in extreme environments has prepared Meir for her next mission in extreme conditions. But this time, she’ll be both the subject and the scientist.
EXPERIMENTS IN SPACE
During her stay on the space station, Meir and her crew mates will support about 250 research experiments that “broaden our knowledge of Earth, space, physical and biological sciences in ways that benefit our everyday lives,” according to NASA. They also will help enable long-term exploration into deep space for future Artemis missions to the moon and Mars.
“As a scientist, I’m incredibly excited to be participating as a subject and operator,” she said.
Meir said some of her work will be in a bio-fabrication facility doing research that could one day allow bio-artificial organs and tissues to be made in space and used for organ transplants on Earth. She’ll also work on an experiment that aims to better understand how blood vessels are affected by microgravity, the condition in which people and objects appear to be weightless. Astronauts returning from the space station have had stiffening and thickening in the walls of the carotid artery, causing aging equivalent to 20 years in six months, she said.
To prepare for all of this – co-piloting a rocket, the experiments and living on the space station – Meir has spent much of the past year and a half in Star City, Russia. There, she learned everything from the Russian language to how to repair a toilet in space.
“For me, training here in Star City has been one of the most incredible experiences throughout my career so far,” Meir said in a NASA video highlighting her training in Russia. “Training here in Star City, the very spot where the first human into space trained, is something unbelievable and incredible.”
Cassidy, the astronaut from York, was on the space station when Meir was selected to be an astronaut and called to congratulate her. Once he was back on Earth, he came to know Meir as a “top-notch person and top-notch professional” who handled the grind of training and testing with a good sense of humor.
“She’s able to roll with that through stressful periods,” he said. “She’s a pleasure to work with.”
Cassidy, who bonded with Meir over their shared love of Maine, will reunite with his colleague in March, when he arrives for his third mission on the space station. They will spend several weeks orbiting Earth together before her mission ends.
“It’s the first time we’ll ever have two astronauts from Maine in space at the same time,” Cassidy said.
Meir has documented much of her training on her Instagram account, from Russian meals to the final exams she completed last week with her crew mates. Last week, she spent a few hours walking through a botanical garden, savoring the flowers, appreciating the feel of the breeze on her skin and smelling the fresh air.
“The thing I’ll miss the most is nature,” she said.
But Meir is eagerly anticipating her first views of Earth from space, an experience she thinks will bolster her appreciation for how fragile and special Earth is.
“From what I’ve heard from people who have been up there, it really does change your life,” she said. “I think it really does shift your perspective as a human.”
When Meir launches from Kazakhstan in 17 days, Caribou will be watching.
“The community is very proud of her,” said Cowett, Meir’s high school friend. “It’s not every day you get to have somebody in your community that’s going up into space.”
After years of training, Meir said she is confident and ready for her first trip into space. And she’s packed a few things that remind her of home, including a Maine flag.
“I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my entire life,” she said.