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“There’s No One Path” : How Astronaut Jessica Meir Went From Studying Animal Physiology to Training for Space Flight

In advance of the PBS special, Beyond a Year in Space, which premieres on Wednesday, November 15, at 9PM EST, I was able to speak with Jessica U. Meir, a member of NASA Astronaut Group 21, about her experiences as an astronaut. Meir and her Group 21 teammate, former Navy pilot Victor Glover, both appear in Beyond A Year in Space to discuss how NASA is preparing for the next generation of deep space travel. The documentary (which I highly recommend!) looks at how Scott and Mark Kelly’s twin experiment, and other NASA studies and advances, will make it possible for us to reach Mars and beyond. 

Jessica U. Meir has wanted to be an astronaut since she was five years old. “I remember watching launches on classroom TVs,” she said, “Something about it must have caught my eye or captured my imagination—perhaps since I was also driven by exploration and science, and learning more about the world around me.”

However, “you know they don’t seek you out,” she said. “Since I was always interested in space, I always involved myself in NASA-related or space-related activities whenever possible.” As a result, Meir actually worked at NASA as a scientist for three years (2000-2003) before she even applied to become an astronaut. But even though she’d always dreamed of space, she knew “biology was really the subject that I was most passionate about.”

As a result, she undertook her PhD and postdoctoral research studying the physiology of animals in extreme environments, including emperor penguins and bar-headed geese.

“For my PhD, it was actually studying diving physiology—so, animals that can dive really deep and long, trying to understand physiologically how they can support that,” she explained. “An emperor penguin, for example, can hold its breath for 30 minutes, an elephant seal for two hours. And these are air-breathing, breath-hold divers just like us, so how does their physiology support that?” Meir looked specifically at emperor penguins in the Antarctic and elephant seals in California during her PhD at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UCSD).

From there, she became interested in high-altitude physiology as part of her postdoctoral work at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Animals that live at high altitudes or migrate at high altitudes are exposed to a similar kind of pressure in terms of an oxygen limitation,” she said. “You know, they’re not ‘holding their breath’ while they’re at altitude, but because of the altitude there’s of course much less oxygen there. Sometimes you even see very similar examples of adaptation between a diving animal that’s holding its breath or an animal that’s flying at high altitude.”

For her postdoctoral project, she wanted to study bar-headed geese, which undertake an extremely high-altitude migration over the Himalayas twice a year. Meir wanted to understand how they were able to survive a migration where there’s only a half to a third of the amount of oxygen in the air—and to do that, she had to imprint her own pack of goslings.

“Our idea was to fly them in a wind tunnel so we could measure a lot of these aspects simultaneously in a controlled environment,” she explained, “but in order to do that, I had to actually imprint the birds. If you just took a wild animal, or even a captive animal that wasn’t that used to humans, you’re probably just going to be measuring a fear response when you try to get it to do something like fly in a wind tunnel.”

And so Meir imprinted 12 goslings and trained them to wear oxygen masks inside the wind tunnel. “We could sort of simulate that high altitude by reducing the overall oxygen in what they were breathing,” she explained. “And then we could measure things like heart rate and oxygen levels in the body while they’re flying, just like I’d done before with the diving animals.”

While this work might not seem like the ideal training for NASA, where the majority of astronauts still come from an engineering background, it’s certainly not unusual anymore. “There’s no one path to becoming an astronaut,” said Meir. “I think that’s one of the great things about the job these days. You know, originally, all of the astronauts were white male military test pilots. And now the program is much more diverse.”

“Obviously we have racial and gender diversity,” she continued, “but we also have a whole background of STEM disciplines. We have scientists, we have engineers, we have medical doctors. We still have those military test pilots, too, but I think if you’re looking to solve any one problem or create a really efficient, successful team, you want to have different types of perspective and different types of experience represented. So I think it makes us a much stronger agency and group now that we have all of that diversity represented.”

And Meir’s background in physiology is more relevant than you might expect. As covered in the documentary, Beyond A Year in Space, one of NASA’s primary concerns about long-duration space flight is its effect on astronauts and their bodies. After months of microgravity, you could lose up to 15% of your muscle mass, possibly permanently, without exercise. The International Space Station (ISS) is therefore equipped with specially developed exercise machines which use pistons and vaccuum cylinders to function in microgravity, and which you can see demonstrated here.

Human physiology impacts almost every decision that’s involved in a space flight, and so one of Meir’s many jobs at NASA involves “looking at some of the different physiological issues and parameters for the new vehicles that we’re building.” NASA is working on the new Orion spacecraft, while Boeing and Space X are also working on vehicles of their own. “In building a new spacecraft, you have to keep in mind all these different physiological factors,” Meir said, “like the pressure, the oxygen level, the carbon dioxide level, the pressure inside the space suit, what happens if there’s a depressurization … if you have a human in that spacecraft, you need to consider how they would affect your physiology.”

Meir’s class has been touted as the first that might go to Mars, though Meir is a bit more realistic about their near-term prospects. However, she emphasized that “everything that we’re doing on the space station, or doing with our robotics on the spacecraft, is getting us closer toward going to Mars.”

In the near future, they’ll be running test flights on the brand-new Orion spacecraft. As part of the Deep Space Gateway program, a stepping stone on the way to Mars, test flights on Orion “will go out around the moon, further than any of the Apollo missions. It won’t land on the moon yet, but it will go past it. This will be a two- to three-week mission, and there’s a good chance that me or one of my classmates could be on that mission.”

“After that, it’s still kind of being established,” explained Meir. “It’s not completely planned yet, but it would basically be having this Deep Space Gateway in the proximity of the moon, and then hopefully we would be landing on the moon, and then eventually going to Mars.”

Of course, the most likely possible mission for Meir is to the International Space Station (ISS). “Realistically, that will be my first mission,” she said. “Typically, those missions are six months, and we’ve had a continuous human presence on the space station now for 17 years. So that’s what we’re doing right now.”

Of course, when it comes to a career as an astronaut, you never know what might happen. Meir initially made it to the final round for the 2009 astronaut class (Astronaut Group 20), but she wasn’t selected that year. “Knowing how it’s really a numbers game, I really didn’t think that it would ever happen,” she said. “But then the opportunity came to apply again [for the 2011 class], and I thought, ‘Well, I’m sure the same thing’s gonna happen, my interview will go really well, but…’ Of course, that’s when it happened.”

I also asked Meir if she had any advice for women in the sciences, particularly women with a seemingly impossible dream like becoming an astronaut.

“My number one piece of advice is to follow and pursue that which you are truly passionate about,” she said. “I truly believe in order to excel at something, and perhaps more importantly, to be happy doing it, that passion is required. So the key is to identify that one thing that really drives and inspires you, even if it might not be exactly what other people might have in mind for you. Being a biologist might not seem like the most natural avenue toward becoming an astronaut (it is true that the most common degree in our office is engineering), but biology is what I was most fascinated about, so in the end, that is what led me to my ultimate dream job.”

“Finding purpose is the next level, that sense that you are part of something bigger than yourself. Of course, it also takes a lot of dedication and hard work, but the combination of those elements seems to be a recipe for success (as well as good timing and a lot of luck, when it comes to things like being an astronaut!). There are many people with the drive and dedication to be an astronaut, so all of us that are fortunate enough to end up here realize there is a lot of luck involved as well!”

(Featured image via NASA)

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