What makes a NASA astronaut the most excited about going to outer space?

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Feb 12, 2018

Jessica Meir has been thinking about going to outer space since she was five years old. Now that she's officially a NASA astronaut, Meir is prepping to join the small group of human beings who have left this planet, breaking through our Earth's atmosphere, defying its gravitational pull, and reaching into the stars in search of what's out there. There's a lot to prepare for before one takes their first trip to outer space, but Meir knows what she's looking forward to the most: the "Overview Effect." That profound emotional change in perspective that so many astronauts report after seeing our world from space.

"The thing I’ve always had in my mind from the time I was a kid was that feeling of looking back at the Earth," Meir told me over the phone early this year. "There’s this big blue ball down there spinning around that has everything you’ve ever known, every person, every place you’ve ever been, every experience you’ve ever had down there. I’ve heard and read a lot about that sort of perspective change that people gain after being in space and it’s really – it can be quite profound."

Meir is featured in the PBS special Beyond a Year in Space, which is now available on Amazon. A follow-up to A Year in Space, which chronicled Scott Kelly's historic year spent on the International Space Station, "Beyond" examines the ongoing research Kelly will now provide while introducing the next generation of astronauts who will use it.

Meir's pre-NASA resume is quite eclectic. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Brown University, a Master of Science in Space Studies from the International Space University, and a Doctorate in Marine Biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UCSD). For her Ph.D she studied the Bar-headed Goose, one of the world's highest-flying birds, which migrate over the Himalayas twice a year. "Biology was always my favorite subject," Meir said, "so I really was pursuing both kind of simultaneously I’d say all through my life. I just majored in biology but I was involving myself in NASA and space-related activities."

Marine biology? Geese? One might wonder what these things have to do with space travel, but Meir's specialty is learning how living creatures react to extreme environments. And there's nothing more extreme than outer space.

"So looking at all kinds of different physiological variables, like how space flight and a microgravity environment affect the human body, from bone loss to muscle atrophy and really any physiological systems."

So what does it take to become an astronaut these days? NASA's two-year astronaut training program involves becoming proficient in five major categories. First, there's flight training, for which the candidates travel to Pensacola, Florida and train with the U.S. Navy. Luckily for Meir, she already had her pilot's license anyway, because when you've been thinking about something since you were five, might as well get ahead of the game, right?

Credit: NASA

The second is spacesuit and spacewalk training, which utilizes the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NASA's giant swimming pool), which features a true-to-size underwater space station. Third is the maintenance of the space station itself, so expertise in its life support systems, thermal control, electrical, and basic engineering are an absolute must. Considering that the oldest module of the ISS has been in orbit since 1998, it's essential that all astronauts know what to do if anything breaks.

Then there's learning to use the huge robotic arm on the outside of the space station, which Meir describes as, "A little bit like playing a video game." Finally all American astronauts have to learn Russian, emphasizing the international nature of space exploration on the whole.

For Meir, and for most trainees she thinks, the hardest part of the whole program is the spacewalk training. The space suit itself weighs about 320 pounds, so with a human body inside the whole apparatus heads over 400 pounds. Obviously in space it won't weigh anything at all, but that doesn't mean it's easy to manipulate here on Earth, even submerged in the pool. "It’s almost like learning how to operate your own little spacecraft because you really are," Meir says. "It’s your entire life support system when you’re doing a spacewalk. It’s incredibly bulky so it's really challenging both physically and mentally, but at the same time that’s usually the kind of environment in which I’m the most content."

Meir completed training in 2015, and now that she's an active NASA astronaut, every day is different. "One day you might be doing flight training in the jet, another day you might be in a classroom learning Russian, the next day you might be in the pool underwater in the spacesuit and so I really like that the job is really diverse and a lot of it is very active," she said. "You're not just sitting around on a computer all day doing the same thing."

Meir is putting her specialty to use by participating in experiments like the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), where she served as an aquanaut in an underwater habitat called Aquarius, which sits under 45 feet of water off the coast Key Largo. Meir and the other participants spent multiple days living in the habitat and doing saturation dives without having to worry about decompression.

"NASA kind of realized, ‘Oh this is a great parallel to space,’ because you’re living in that small environment and you have this timeline to execute and you need a life support system to go outside just like you do in space. So we send groups down there for training."

Another experimental living situation Meir participated in was run by the European Space Agency that took place in a cave system on the island of Sardinia, which she describes as, "The most amazing thing I've ever done."

For six days, she and another NASA astronaut, a Spanish astronaut, a Japanese astronaut, a Russian cosmonaut, and a Chinese taikonaut lived and worked 25 kilometers below the surface of the Earth, rock climbing, ascending, descending, and maneuvering through connecting caves and caverns via tunnel.

"One minute you would be squeezing yourself through this tiny little hole that you don’t even think you could fit through," Meir said, "then all of a sudden you come out into this giant gallery with like a hundred meter walls. I had no idea that anything like that existed on our planet. It was completely like a science fiction fantasy; like Jules Verne 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' kind of thing. It was just otherworldly. It was unbelievable. That was just a unique and special experience. We would joke about how if we put spacesuits on and filmed this we could absolutely convince people we had gone to a different planet."

The environment may be intended to simulate other planets, but the real purpose of both the Sardinia and NEEMO missions, Meir said, is team building. These extreme environments test things like teamwork, communications, tension, problem solving, and living with others in confined spaces. "If we’re trying to recreate what it’s like on a space mission, we try to find environments that have something in common so if you’re in a harsh or isolated environment like you would have in space, then maybe you’re living in a small confined space with a group of other people."

Credit: NASA

Though NASA has its sights on Mars (their projections have a manned mission to the red planet at some point in the 2030s), Meir's first mission will be a six month trip to the International Space Station, for which she'll start prepping a year or two out, once she gets the go-ahead. But, she says, all new experiments are with Mars in their plans.

"Everything that we’re doing is helping us get there, right?" A new spacecraft called Orion is now in the works, as is a new launch system. And for the record, "NASA would never do a one-way journey to Mars," Meir said. "That’s just not the way that we operate. When we finally get to Mars it would be getting there and returning safely, absolutely. There are people that talk about a one-way journey. We don’t really think about things that way at NASA, but if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do."

But everything needs to be bigger, faster, and stronger than the machines involved to get us to the moon. To offer some perspective, Meir emphasized the ISS is 250 miles above the Earth, the moon is 250,000 miles away. Mars? A whopping 45 million miles. But the whole thing will start with more experiments, and more trips to the moon, around the moon, and farther from the moon than any other human has traveled.

Which sounds pretty frightening to the average person. (I get nervous flying in planes at 30,000 feet in the air when I'm just going on vacation.) But for Meir, and those properly trained, there's no hesitation.

"The people that get selected to do this job are kind of more inclined to operating in environments that are a little bit more intense," Meir said laughing. "We’re the ones that are lucky enough to go to space, but really it’s hundreds of thousands of people a year that are training us; that are building all the equipment and launching us that are the most important people. And they do such a great job at training us that I think you’re so well prepared for everything that if something goes awry, it’s a situation that you’ve already trained for and you know exactly what to do. You don’t have to worry about being afraid. But then again, maybe some people feel a little bit differently when they’re finally at that moment of being launched on a giant rocket."

As for those people being launched inside the giant rocket? There may be more women on board than ever. Meir's astronaut class is the first class that is 50% female. Many women have been involved in NASA's programs since Sally Ride's historic flight in 1983, and though Meir says the women number less than 50 percent in the office,

"We’re trending in the right direction like other fields. I know that I’m very fortunate that I never felt that there was any environment I was in that I was looked at like I couldn’t do something because I was a woman. That's not to take away from the previous generations that really did have that struggle and obviously we still do have that struggle in terms of parity in many fields and really in just our society in general."

But Meir is excited about possibly being an inspiration for, say, the first woman to step foot on Mars. "I think it’s nice if we can be role models for kids growing up now to see there are different people from all different backgrounds and different races and religions and there are men and there are women and it really doesn’t matter where you came from or what you look like to prevent you from kind of achieving your dreams. So it’s a good place to be."

 

From the sandy surface of Mars, the Earth will look much smaller than from the orbiting ISS, so the first humans to step foot on the red planet will be looking back at a much smaller marble than those who circle our mother planet. But the Overview Effect, Meir says, seems to hit everyone. "In terms of perspective of human insignificance, how small we are in the grand scheme of the solar system and the universe and the role we all play," Meir says, is an unavoidable shift. Floating on this rock, we may feel like the center of the universe, but out there, we're just a beautiful, blue dot.