Science & Research

Astronaut Jessica Meir ’99 scheduled for first space voyage

Meir to spend six months on International Space Station, co-pilot Russian Soyuz spacecraft

By
Science and Research Editor
Thursday, April 25, 2019

While at the University, Meir studied biology, took flight lessons and played in the pit for theater performances. She cited Professor of Biology Kenneth Miller as an early influence in her scientific career.

NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir ’99 will blast through Earth’s atmosphere Sept. 25 in her first ever space flight, propelling into six months of orbit on the International Space Station.

Meir will co-pilot a Soyuz spacecraft alongside a Russian cosmonaut commander and the United Arab Emirates’ first astronaut in space. Launching from Kazakhstan, the flight itself will last only eight minutes, but it will take the team roughly six hours to dock the spacecraft onto the ISS. Then, Meir will spend six months living roughly 240 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Though the news of her space flight broke only last week, she has been training for the mission since January 2018, splitting time mostly between the Johnson Space Center in Houston and a cosmonaut training center in Star City, Russia.

“As a scientist, I’m really, really excited to contribute to all the different kinds of experiments. … The other thing that I’m really excited for is to hopefully do a spacewalk,” Meir said.

Though no space walks are guaranteed, she believes the chances are high that she will have her first opportunity to float in space. “That’s … a thing that I’ve always dreamed about my whole life — being out there in a space suit looking back on Earth.”

Meir has been preparing for this moment for more or less her entire life — her career aspirations have been aimed at the sky since she was five years old. She attended Purdue University’s space camp before her freshman year of high school, and she later spent six weeks at the Space and Life Sciences Training Program at the Kennedy Space Center after her sophomore year at the University.

“The driving force of everything that I’ve done in my life has been exploration,” she said.

Meir came to the University hoping to study biology and cited the introductory course taught by Professor of Biology Kenneth Miller, who still teaches BIOL 0200: “The Foundations of Living Systems,” as an influence that kept her on that path through college and life. Miller “realized how important it was to … capture people early and get them excited about it.” She went on to complete an honors thesis under Professor Emeritus of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Herman Vandenburgh at the University and Miriam Hospital.

“There really aren’t that many (astronauts) that are life scientists like I am. … A vast majority of astronauts do have a degree in engineering,” Meir said. “But for me, that just wasn’t what I was most excited about. I thought it was really important to do what I really loved, even if it maybe wasn’t the most direct path to becoming an astronaut.”

On campus, Meir was an active member of Women in Science and Engineering and the space and flying clubs — she started taking flight lessons while an undergraduate. She also loved playing the flute and saxophone, first in the wind symphony and later in the pit for theater performances. The latter activity aligns with her love for musical theater.

After graduation, Meir applied to the International Space University in Strasbourg, France to get her Master’s in “Space Studies.” This was the first of many postbaccalaureate pursuits that have defined Meir’s scientific career. Following her time in France, she worked at the Johnson Space Center and later received her PhD from the University of California at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Meir is a veteran of extreme environments. To study animal physiology in extreme habitats, she often pushed herself deep below sea-level, scuba-diving in the Antarctic under sea ice. Her PhD research explored the diving physiology of emperor penguins and elephant seals.

After spending years studying animals in physically grueling environments, she will be studied in a similar context.

“It kind of is full circle,” Meir said. “Now I’m going to be the subject, and they are going to be recording all sorts of different parameters on me while I’m in space.”

To become an astronaut as a civilian — the process is slightly different for those in the military — one must complete a standard application on the USAJOBS website. Thousands of people apply, and that list is whittled down to 400 people and then down to 120. Those 120 candidates are flown to Houston for two days of interviews, team building activities and psychological tests. Between 40 and 50 people are selected as finalists to return to NASA for a more intensive week of evaluations. Finally, one year later, about eight to fourteen individuals are chosen as a new class of astronauts.

Meir first applied in 2004, before she had gone to graduate school. She applied again in 2008 and made it to the final round, but was ultimately not selected. The next chance to apply came in 2013. “I was really happy in my career as a scientist, and I was doing my postdoc at the University of British Columbia, … but I still had to apply, just to see, since it was always my dream.” This time, she was chosen as one of eight in the 21st NASA astronaut class.

After selection, astronauts enter candidate training, which involves everything from flight and space walk practice to literacy in the Russian language and the mechanics of systems aboard spacecrafts. After her class graduated in 2015, she was ready for her first mission. “When we got selected (in 2013), they told us it would be between five and ten years before we started flying, and they were absolutely right.”

Now, six years later, she finally will get to execute her first space adventure. While on the ISS, “I will be doing lots of different experiments ranging from physiology and medicine to … material science,” she said. “Really any type of science that you need, we are doing it up there.”

The next few months will be packed with final preparations — first to Germany in July and then Russia for her “final exams” before the big launch from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.

“My friends at Brown and all of my professors at Brown were really instrumental in me getting where I am today,” Meir said.

Meir will be in Russia preparing for her space flight when her twentieth reunion is celebrated on campus next month. “I think my friends are going to try to have a big cardboard cutout of me with them so I can be there in spirit — so you’ll have to look out for that.”

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