It is very likely that some time in the next few years a woman from Caribou will be orbiting 249 miles above the earth looking down on “everything I have ever known and done” from the International Space Station.
“We never really know when it’s going to happen until it happens,” said Jessica Meir, 39, of the possible date of her first assignment. “Hopefully it will come within the next one to three years.”
Valedictorian of Caribou High School’s Class of 1995, Meir is one of eight men and women selected from more than 6,100 applicants in 2013 for NASA’s 21st class of astronauts. Since she was featured in this column in February 2015, she has completed the two-year training program required to advance from “astronaut candidate” to a full-fledged astronaut.
Once assigned to a mission destined for the International Space Station (ISS), she may spend another two years training.
In the meantime, Meir is preparing at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston for the trip she has dreamed of since childhood.
“The cool thing about this job is every day is different,” she said in a phone conversation. When I caught up with her Monday, she had spent the day underwater in a space suit practicing tasks she would perform on the space station.
Tuesday was devoted to Russian language study and other classes.
Wednesday she flew a T-38 jet in the morning and led a tour of the space center in the afternoon.
Thursday and Friday she was talking to astronauts on the International Space Station as a capsule communicator, or Capcom, from the mission control center on the ground in Houston. Meir has served as lead Capcom for several missions, and is excited about her upcoming role as the person communicating with astronauts during a spacewalk.
When launch day finally arrives, Meir might fly to the space station on a new vehicle being developed in the U.S.
“We currently fly to the space station with the Russians on their Soyuz rocket,” she explained. “In the next few years, with the development of the new Space-X and Boeing vehicles, we will also fly to the space station launching from the U.S. again. So, this means I could potentially fly to the ISS on either a Russian Soyuz, or one of the future Space-X and Boeing vehicles.”
She expects to be one of a six-member international team on the station, with other crewmembers typically representing Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe. Currently aboard the station are two astronauts from the U.S., one from France and three Russian cosmonauts. Crewmembers currently rotate in and out on the Soyuz in groups of three.
Once aloft for their four-to-six-month mission, crewmembers conduct a host of experiments, many assessing the various physiological effects of weightlessness (microgravity) on the human body.
“Every type of science is represented up there,” she said, naming biological experiments, DNA sequencing and studies of combustion, propulsion and fluids as a few examples.
As a biologist who has studied the physiology of animals in extreme environments — from emperor penguins in Antarctica to bar-headed geese in British Columbia — Meir muses that soon she will be the subject of such biological experiments.
Spacewalk training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) at the Johnson Space Center gives her a preview. Wearing a 350-pound pressurized space suit, she is lowered into a 40-foot-deep pool to work on a life-sized replica of a part of the space station. Even with six million gallons of water, the 200-foot-by-100-foot pool is not large enough for a scale model of the entire station, (which is the size of a football field), so some parts are laid out separately underwater.
“It’s definitely the most challenging thing we do, but it is also the most rewarding,” she said of her monthly sessions at the NBL. “We practice in the pool for things we might later do on the space station.”
Unable to walk in the space suit on land, she floats, neutrally buoyant, in the water.
Working for six hours at a time, she practices tasks, such as routing cables, testing equipment and making repairs, using tools attached to the front of her space suit. In addition to performing scientific experiments, astronauts need to know plumbing, electronics, mechanics, first-aid and other skills to keep the station operating day to day.
“Everything we are doing is helping our journey to eventually get to Mars,” Meir said. Although the U.S. currently has no funded program to send people to Mars, Meir said she personally hopes humans will return to the moon first.
To learn what it is like to live in an otherworldly environment with a small team pursuing scientific objectives, Meir spent six days in a network of caves in Sardinia, Italy, last July with fellow astronauts from the U.S., Japan, Russia, China and Spain. The team made daily excursions into extraordinary spaces, belaying each other over rock faces, navigating channels of water, photographing, mapping the caves, collecting specimens, conducting experiments and setting up tents for the night.
“Real exploration” she called the experience, part of the European Space Agency’s CAVES mission. “Fascinating. Jaw-dropping. We were like characters in a science fiction illustration — something like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. I was in my element. I didn’t want to come out.”
When Meir was in elementary school in Caribou, her class was instructed to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. She drew a person in a spacesuit on the moon holding a flag.
As her dream gradually becomes reality, she remembers the images of earth taken from the moon during the Apollo space mission, looking forward to the day when she can see for herself “that fragile blue ball below,” preferably on a space walk “out there alone in a spacesuit.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.