by PAN .
September 15, 2019
Like Jessica Meir, many of us dreamt as children of becoming an astronaut. Jessica was a very determined little girl and made her dream a reality. This September, this American astronaut will launch her first space mission, an endeavor she’s spent decades working towards. As the planned co-pilot on the Russian spacecraft, Soyuz, Jessica Meir has gone through extensive training (some of it in Russia and in Russian, no less). Jessica believes part of her mission is to share her experience with the world; if you peruse her Instagram (@astro_jessica) you will get a glimpse into her training, from flying NASA jets in formation to practicing zero-gravity weight lifting, to understanding space suit dynamics and mastering in-space shuttle repairs. What is this biologist most looking forward to accomplishing during her six-month tenure on the International Space Station, and what space destination is next on her list?
When did you know you wanted to become an astronaut? Was this a lifelong dream?
I dreamed about it my whole life. I started saying it when I was five and then my first distinct memory was when I was in first grade, we were asked to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I remember drawing an astronaut on the surface of the moon in a space suit standing there next to the flag, that kind of iconic image. Then I just pretty much said it ever since. There wasn't really anything that happened; both my parents were from other countries, so it's not like we knew anything about or had any exposure to NASA. I think it was probably a kind of innate inclination I had toward exploration.
That seems to be something that has driven me my whole life. My mom's Swedish and has a really big connection with nature, and I grew up in a really small town in northern Maine - lots of trees and amazing stars. Maybe all those things were the perfect combination. And when I was growing up in the '80s, the space shuttle program was really active. We didn't have the Internet, so we saw whatever was on the evening news. Back then, the shuttle launches were always televised.
We would watch the shuttle launches at school.
Exactly. And you didn't have a lot of choices back then. It's not like you could just Google other stuff. You got the information that was presented to you, versus now, it seems like the average person probably knows a little bit less about what's happening in the space program than they used to because there's so much information out there about everything.
What did you study in school and how did you end up at NASA?
My favorite subject was biology and that was something that I pursued at the same time as pursuing NASA related things. A lot of people think being a biologist is not the stereotypical subject to study if you want to be an astronaut, most people think of engineering or being a military pilot, and that actually is true. The first astronauts were military pilots. Now about 50% of the astronaut population is still military, but we also have 50% civilians. Even among those civilians and military astronauts, the majority of people's backgrounds are in engineering, but for me, I was most interested in biology, so I kept doing that. Then I just involved myself in any space-related activity as early as I could, even before high school. My sister was in graduate school at Purdue and they had a space camp there, so I went to that. I majored in biology at Brown University, and I did NASA programs while I was in college.
After Brown, I knew I wanted to do an advanced degree, but was debating if I wanted to go to medical school or do a Ph.D. I found out about this year-long masters program in space studies at the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. I figured a year, you can't lose anything by that. I went and then, out of one of the internships I did through that program, I ended up getting a job at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
I worked there for three years as a scientist, supporting the human life science experiment, the physiological experiments that are done on the astronauts that now I will be a subject for. That’s when I got to know a lot more about what it takes to be an astronaut.
In order to become an astronaut, you have to apply. It's an application process like any civil servant government job. If you make it through that first round, then they ask for letters of reference and a physical. After that first round, they narrow it down to about 450 people. Then after that, they will interview about 120 people and you go to Houston for two days. After that, they narrow that group down to about 40 to 50 finalists.
When we were flying more frequently with the space shuttle in the '90s and early 2000s, they were choosing astronaut classes almost every two years and the classes were a lot bigger. They were in the 20s, even up to 35 people per class. Now that the space shuttle retired, we're only choosing astronaut classes about every four years. There were eight of us that were selected in 2013, and it was interesting because it was the first time that it was four men and four women. It was the first time we had a 50% ratio.
Then you have two years of basic training called the Astronaut Candidate Training Program, after you have reached a certain level of proficiency in all the different areas, you’re able to be assigned a mission. While you wait, you work other ground jobs at NASA. I worked a lot in the mission control center as the CAPCOM, the person who's talking to the astronauts from the Mission Control Center. I started the mission specific training in January of last year for a space station mission.
You leave September 25th, correct?
Yes. I'm not sure how much you know about the space station, but we started building the International Space Station in 1998 and we've had a continuous human presence up there for 19 years now, so it’s pretty impressive. We generally have six people up there at all times. It's not just NASA, it's the Russian Space Agency, the Japanese, the Europeans and the Canadian Space Agencies too. At any one time, the six people are a mix of all those different countries with the Russians and us being the main partners. The typical mission is six months. So my mission will be six months. September 25th is the planned launch date, and then our planned landing day right now is the beginning of April.
What are you most excited about? Most curious about?
With my background as a scientist, I'm really excited about contributing to all the science that's going on. The space station is a US national lab and the primary reason for the space station is to do science. In the beginning, it took a lot of time to build the space station. Now that it's built, we've been able to do a lot of scientific experiments. We're doing everything ranging from physiology and medical experiments, looking at how space flight and microgravity affect the human body, to how flames burn in space. We're doing combustion experiments because you can imagine with any chemical, physical or even biological process that's not subjected to gravity, there are going to be profound differences in the way all of these systems operate.
As a scientist, I know how much effort it takes to get an experiment going and get all the work done and then wait to collect data. I did experiments on animals that were difficult to work with, in weird locations, like emperor penguins in the Antarctic, seals in California and high altitude geese, so I understand what it's like to put so much effort into an experiment and then to wait to get the data. Those scientists on the ground have waited so long and put so much effort in to get the data and they're not in control of it. I am in control of getting them the data. It’s nice to understand that hardship.
Wind Tunnel Experiment
The other thing that I'm most looking forward to is to go for a spacewalk. That's something I always dreamed about, looking back at the earth and it's going to be this tiny little blue planet that's fragile and you see this thin boundary of the atmosphere. I think a lot about the first shots that we had during the Apollo missions when human eyes saw the earth from the outside for the first time. Those iconic Earthrise photos were pivotal in the environmental movement and people understanding how special and fragile our planet is and how we need to protect it.
And then in terms of changing our perspective of how insignificant we are as humans on the planet, and appreciating our role in the solar system and within the universe, just being in the space station looking out the window, I think you can appreciate that. One step further, it is being outside the space station in your own space suit, which is your mini-life support system and it's just you. I can't even imagine how profound that's going to be in terms of changing my perspective. It’s something other astronauts have written a lot about, [author] Frank White even termed it the “overview effect” where it's this paradigm-shifting perspective when you see that for the first time.
I also like the whole aspect of spacewalk training. The suit is the most difficult thing that we do, both physically and mentally. Since the missions are planned so far in advance, you don't know for certain that you're going to do a spacewalk, but hopefully I will, it’s in the plans.
Besides what you want to accomplish professionally, what do you hope to accomplish there personally?
I think the first thing is finally understanding what that's going to be like. What I just described, that feeling, it’s always been a big expectation and something I thought about my whole life. I'm really wondering what it's going to be like for me, and what that means for me after.
Many of us imagine what it would be like to be up in space, but it's only part of our imagination, we never think of it becoming a reality.
The other thing that's really important to me is to be able to share it with people. We are so lucky to be some of the few people who get to experience that, so I look at it as our obligation to share it in as many ways as possible, with not just our family and friends, but the whole world.
As a scientist, outreach to students and the general public has always been an important part of my career and priorities. It is also one of NASA’s main mission statements, to educate and do outreach. I have some ideas of how I can do that, especially for people I'm close to, but even more broadly for everybody.
You started training seriously for this mission in January of 2018 - what's been your favorite part of training? Your least favorite part?
Normally it's a two-year training period for a space station mission. And mine was a little bit off-nominal because we're in a weird state right now with the space station program since we are developing new vehicles. If you've heard about SpaceX, the Elon Musk company and Boeing, they are both building new vehicles that we will launch from the US again. They were supposed to be ready, but they're not. So things have been a little bit weird in terms of our assignments. I actually started training last year, because I will be in the left seat of the Soyuz, the Russian spacecraft, which means I'm the co-pilot. Most of my training time has actually been in Russia.
There are three seats in every Russian Soyuz rocket, and the middle seat is always a Russian, that's the commander since it's their vehicle. The left seat is essentially the co-pilot, they have a lot of responsibilities, and they're trained basically at the same level as commander. The spacecraft is designed to be flown by two people, so you don't have to have anybody in the right seat. You can have someone with minimal training; they've flown tourists in the right seat before.
It’s so much more interesting because I'm literally learning how to fly the spacecraft and serving as a co-pilot and doing all these important functions, and it's all in Russian, which makes it a lot more difficult. But it also makes it a lot more fun. I like working outside of the US and working internationally with different cultures. With both my parents from different countries, I appreciate that aspect of it.
You’ve flown planes before?
I had my private pilot's license before I got this job. One of the things that we do for our job is we fly jets, the NASA T-38, so all those things really help us get in that mindset.
The other interesting component is that we spend most of our training thinking about the launch and the landing because it's so intensive in terms of what we have to learn, but that in a six-month mission is only a tiny fraction of our time up there. The launch, you're in space within about eight and a half minutes.
That's so fast.
I'll be on the space station in six hours, and I won't be thinking about that Russian vehicle for six months, and then I'll fly down again in it, but that'll again only be a few hours. It's interesting that the majority of your training is actually spent thinking about and doing stuff that is a really tiny component of our mission.
Being a woman, what do you think are some of the challenges and also opportunities that you face being an astronaut?
I get asked this a lot, especially since as I mentioned, we are the first class that had that 50% ratio. I'm really happy to say that I haven't felt those challenges. I think that I'm fortunate and I know that my generation owes it a lot to the generations that came before us that did have a lot more struggles. That's of course not to be said that people don't still have those struggles. Certainly [as women] we're still a bit away from actual equality in most areas, but I personally haven't felt that in terms of my professional life. I know that I'm lucky because of that.
I hope now I can help inspire younger girls who might not be inspired in certain ways, that the generations growing up now can look at us and they see that it's women and men up there and everybody's doing the same job in space and at NASA. Hopefully, if that becomes a norm and people get used to seeing that, then these things will eventually go away.
So some lighter questions. Being a woman too, how do you deal with skincare and those basic things you take for granted when you're up in space?
I can't just send up anything that I want, but they do a very good job now of getting us what we need and making sure that we're comfortable, especially because of the fact that these are long-duration missions now.
I can rough it. I love to go hiking and camping, so I'm fine with not showering for long periods of time and living outside. Even though I love and appreciate fashion and city life, and I get very caught up in that when I'm on earth, I very quickly lose that when I go hiking. I think maybe I'm probably even happier when I don't have any of that stuff.
Now, they are a little bit more strict on the space station, because there are a lot of chemical ingredients in a lot of normal lotions and makeup products that might be harmful to the life support system on a space station. Everything takes a long time to get approved at NASA. So they'll meet with you and ask, "Okay, which are the products that you need?" Of course, you try not to be too high maintenance. But we are on camera all the time too. My stuff's actually already up there; my moisturizer and most of my clothes and stuff like that are already launched.
What is one little small luxury you think you'll miss when you're up there?
Moisturizer is a big thing for me. I couldn't fly the actual moisturizer I usually use so I had to pick a different one. But then I did fly my eye cream. That was kind of like a little luxury.
Is there anything you're not looking forward to dealing with when you're up there?
Not really because it's going to be my childhood dream come true, so I'm looking forward to all of it. Of course some of the things that we take for granted on earth become a lot more difficult, like going to the bathroom. But I think that it's just one of those things that out of necessity you figure out how to do quickly, and then it's fine. In the beginning, as you're adjusting, there's just more to think about because on earth we don't usually use our brains very much when we go to the bathroom or prepare food. Up there you can't just do all that stuff that simply without gravity.
A lot of people ask me what I'll miss. Because I love spending time in the outdoors and being in nature is really important to me, not being able to go outside and feel the fresh air, that's something I think I will miss more than anything. Some people describe it as you have this unique vantage point of the earth and you can see all of the most beautiful spots, all of the climate zones, anywhere you've ever wanted to go, but you can't actually experience them. It's kind of ironic in that sense where you can see the beauty of all of it, but you can't appreciate any of it.
Would you ever consider living on Mars?
Absolutely, once NASA has a mission planned and ready to go and bring people. We won't do it at NASA until we're ready to bring people back safely. Right now they look at it as a three-year mission, and so if we get to the point where we're ready to do it, absolutely. I think that is the next big step in our growth and our exploration as a species of humans. If we didn't have that innate human quality to explore, then we never would have even found all the landmasses on our planet. It's just an innate characteristic of humans that we're always taking the next step and looking at the next great unknown.
Our next plan is to go to the moon, and that's actually received a lot more publicity lately. It would be a stepping stone to getting toward Mars. I think that it probably won't be in my career that we send astronauts to Mars, but it will be in my career that we send humans to the moon again, and so I would love that. I would love to go to the moon.
All photographs courtesy of NASA and Jessica Meir.