June 19, 2013

Prospective astronaut from Maine always on a mission

Jessica Meir, who grew up in Caribou, is the youngest of five in a family of overachievers.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Jessica Meir studies animals in extreme situations, such as elephant seals that dive nearly a mile deep in the ocean and geese that fly as high as airliners over the Himalayan mountains.

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Jessica Meir, a 35-year-old scientist from Maine, is among eight people who were selected from a pool of more than 6,000 applicants to be trained as astronauts. Meir, who grew up in Caribou, is the youngest of five in a family of overachievers.

Boston Globe

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In this picture taken through a safety glass, U.S. astronaut Christopher Cassidy of York, Maine, crew member of the mission to the International Space Station (ISS), is seen during inspection of his space suit prior to the launch of Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Thursday, March 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Ramil Sitdikov, Pool)

Additional Photos Below

Her next subject could be human beings living in the extreme conditions of outer space.

The 35-year-old scientist from Maine is among eight people who were selected from a pool of more than 6,000 applicants to be trained as astronauts. The selections for the training class, NASA's first in four years, were announced Monday.

If she successfully completes her two years of intense training, Meir could join Chris Cassidy, the only active astronaut from Maine. Cassidy, who is aboard the International Space Station, grew up in York.

Meir, who grew up in Caribou and now lives in Somerville, Mass., will move to Texas this summer to begin a two-year training program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Although there are no guarantees that she will be assigned to a space mission, she hopes to make it to the space station or perhaps a near-Earth asteroid, which could serve as staging area for a trip to Mars.

"It's amazing to realize this dream you have been thinking about for so long actually comes true," she said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

As the youngest of five children in a family of competitive overachievers, Meir was always trying to catch up to her brothers and sisters, said her mother, Ulla-britt Meir, who lives in Cape Elizabeth with Meir's father, Josef Meir.

Jessica Meir was the valedictorian of the Class of 1995 at Caribou High School, earned a bachelor's degree from Brown University in Rhode Island, got a master's degree in space science at the International Space University in France and worked on human physiology experiments at the Johnson Space Center.

After getting her Ph.D. from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego, Meir investigated the low-oxygen tolerance of high-flying bar-headed geese as a researcher at the University of British Columbia.

The geese migrate twice a year over the world's tallest mountains, the Himalayas. To study them, Meir trained bar-headed geese to fly in a wind tunnel while they wore masks and little backpacks with data monitoring equipment.

To do that, she raised a group of birds so they saw her as their mother. They followed her around campus, first as Meir walked, then as she rode a bicycle, and then as she rode a motor scooter, said Bill Milsom, who heads the zoology department at the University of British Columbia.

By reducing the oxygen in the wind tunnel, Meir was able to determine how little oxygen the geese needed, even for strenuous physical activity.

The three-year project, which ended last year, required a researcher with a lot of patience, Milsom said.

"Jessica is incredibly bright, very determined, and she is very organized and efficient," he said.

Meir has done extensive field work in Antarctica, studying how penguins function during deep dives.

Meir is also a scuba diver and an airplane pilot. She has experienced weightlessness while flying in NASA's high-altitude training aircraft, nicknamed the "vomit comet."

She now works as an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, doing research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Talk about the right stuff. If her resume appears ready-made for NASA, that's no accident.

Meir has dreamed of being in space since she was in first grade, when she drew a picture of an astronaut to illustrate what she wanted to be when she grew up.

And she's cool under pressure, her mother said. When she was a senior at Brown, she went paragliding off the Florida coast and the line broke. Meir descended to a tiny island and landed in a tree.

The captain found her hanging a few feet above the ground, said Ulla-britt Meir.

He said, "What are you going to be when you grow up?' " She said, 'I want to be an astronaut.' He said, 'You passed the test.' "

In two years of astronaut boot camp, candidates are schooled in space station systems, Earth sciences, meteorology, space science and engineering. Meir also will learn Russian so she can speak to the cosmonauts on the space station.

She also will train in land and water survival, aircraft operations and scuba diving.

Once her training is complete, she'll be given mission.

Because NASA is so selective in choosing astronaut candidates, almost all of them make it through the training program.

Ulla-britt Meir said she won't let her worries stop her daughter. "You have to fulfill your dream," she said. "There is risk in everything. But that's what she wants to do. We always support her."

 

Tom Bell can be contacted at 274-0787 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Astronaut Christopher Cassidy, STS-127 mission specialist from York, Maine, participates in the mission's fifth and final session of extravehicular activity (EVA) as construction and maintenance continue on the International Space Station in this NASA handout photo taken July 27, 2009. (REUTERS/NASA/Handout)

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Meir made this self-portrait during a research trip to Antarctica. NASA has selected the Maine native to be an astronaut.

Photo courtesy Jessica Meir:

 


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