Science & Research

College Hill to cosmos: Alum joins astronaut class

Jessica Meir ’99 will join the NASA team that could be involved in a future mission to Mars

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Brown alums inhabit places all across the world, but within a couple of decades Jessica Meir ’99 may push Brunonian boundaries even further — to Mars. In June, NASA announced Meir would join the newest astronaut class, which is preparing for possible missions to a nearby asteroid and to Mars.

The eight-member class, made up of scientists and military pilots, was chosen from a pool of more than 6,000 applicants, according to a NASA press release. Composed of four men and four women, the team will join the 46 active astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, according to the NASA website. Their astronaut candidate training began last month.

Basic training, which generally lasts about two years, includes land, water and flight training, said Duane Ross, NASA’s manager for astronaut selection and training. The astronauts will also learn Russian in order to communicate with fellow space scientists. The trained astronauts will then take NASA jobs before being assigned to a mission in a few years, Ross said.

The new class of astronauts could be involved in missions to a nearby asteroid or to Mars, according to the press release. Before that, they may perform missions on the International Space Station.

Meir embodies all of the traits that NASA looks for in astronaut candidates, Ross said. NASA seeks applicants who have practical, hands-on experience and the ability to adapt to various situations, he said. All astronaut candidates must also have a degree in engineering, math or science.

“It was just her whole package that made her stand out,” Ross said.

Meir concentrated in biology at Brown and then earned her PhD from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She focused her academic career and research primarily on the physiology and adaptations of vertebrates in extreme environments, according to the Institution’s website. She has been involved in a variety of research, including studies on the diving physiology of emperor penguins and seals in Antarctica and bar-headed geese’s flights over the Himalayas. In 2002, Meir became a NASA aquanaut in the world’s only undersea research laboratory, located off the coast of Key Largo, Fla., according to the website.

At Brown, Meir was a brilliant student and dedicated friend who was good at everything she did, said Jaclyn Mason ’99, Meir’s close friend and first-year roommate.

“What I’m looking forward to most, the big one, would be eventually, hopefully flying in space since that has been my dream since I was about five years old,” Meir said in a NASA astronaut candidate video profile. Meir was unable to be reached for comment because NASA does not allow astronaut candidates to speak to news outlets after training has begun.

“She had a goal, she achieved it, and every step she took was directed toward that goal,” Mason said.

Meir was a highly motivated student at Brown, said Jim Head PhD’69, a professor of geological sciences who taught Meir in GEOL 0010: “Face of the Earth.”

“She was very sharp, very enthusiastic,” he said.  “She got the highest grade in the class.”

Head now has an especially salient connection with Meir and NASA — he is involved in the geology portion of the astronaut candidate training. He sometimes travels to the Johnson Space Center to teach about geology in outer space, and sometimes the astronaut candidates come to Brown, he said.

A Brown education provides a springboard for exploration after graduation, especially in Meir’s case, Head said.

“The whole atmosphere at Brown is interdisciplinary with plenty of exploration. It creates an atmosphere of problem solving. Jessica is a good example of that. She’s a product of that environment.”

Brown has maintained a strong relationship with NASA, with two other alums currently working there, Head said.

Head added that he was delighted to see a former student chosen for a program he has followed and been involved with for years.

He called the newest astronaut class “extremely and highly motivated.”

“They’re some of the best students,” Head said. “It’s a real thrill to see her name this time.”

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