Meet the northern Maine native who graduated with NASA’s first half-female astronaut class

Jessica Meir talks about what it’s like to walk in a 400-pound spacesuit and work in the space station’s mission control room.

Jessica Meir has been on a mission to become an astronaut since she was 5 years old.

The Caribou, Maine, native completed her mission last year when she officially joined the ranks of 49 current NASA astronauts.

Before becoming an astronaut, Meir devoted her early professional life to studying animals that thrive in Earth’s most extreme environments, after graduating from Brown University in 1999.

Meir made her way back to New England when she became an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in 2012. Though Meir loved her research, she still only had that one dream: to become an astronaut.

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The first time she applied, in 2009, she made it to the final round before being cut.

Three years later, she decided to try again, and was one of eight astronaut trainees selected from more than 6,000 applicants by NASA. Meir’s 2013 class included four women—the highest proportion of female trainees ever selected by NASA, according to The Boston Globe.

A record 18,300 people have applied to be part of NASA’s next astronaut class in 2017.

Meir (far left) with NASA’s 2013 astronaut class. —Courtesy of NASA

When did you first know you wanted to be an astronaut?

I started saying it when I was 5 years old, so I don’t necessarily remember that, but that’s what my mom tells me. My first memory was when I was in first grade. We were asked by our teacher what we wanted to be when we grew up, so I drew a picture of an astronaut on the surface of the moon with a flag. And that’s what I’ve been saying ever since.

It was really cool actually, [the last week of January] I was in Maine, and I made some appearances and went back to my home town for the first time since becoming an astronaut. I gave a talk to the schools, and it was really a special event. Everybody was there, and I actually got to see that teacher from first grade so that was pretty cool.

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She was obviously extremely excited, and she had actually brought with her the picture from first grade, and a playbill from a play that we did with my name in it. She was just really cute and proud, and I just think that all of the mentors, role models, and teachers I have had along the way played such a huge role in my life. That is one of the biggest things for me that really stands out in how I was able to get where I am today.

What does it mean to you to have graduated with NASA’s first half-female astronaut class?

Obviously I think it was a great aspect of it, mostly because it reflects where we are at now. We don’t feel like it’s that big of a deal because we are all here; we were all selected for different reasons. For me, and most of the other women in our class, we never really felt like there was something we couldn’t do based on our sex so I think that just really shows that we’ve come a long way.

What was your favorite aspect of astronaut training?

I think two of my favorite things in school were the flight training and spacewalk training.

[Flight training] was a dream in a dream come true. I always wanted to fly jets and now I get to do that by learning to fly with the military jets.

But space walk training is what you picture when you want to be an astronaut. You picture the spacesuit. That was one of the most challenging things we did as well. It’s really difficult to operate mentally and really physically, it takes a lot of getting used to. You’re in this suit that weighs 400 pounds on earth, and it’s pressurized so your body is in it at a strange angle and every time you move your hand it’s like gripping an exercise ball.

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I remember the very first time I was glancing up, and we always do our space suit training in pairs, and I saw my classmate Josh in his space suit. I thought, ‘Oh look at that! Josh in his space suit, how cool!’ And then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, so am I.’

First “vomit comet flight’’ in 1999. —Courtesy of Jessica Meir

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about being an astronaut?

One of the things we like to have people realize is that we are super lucky as astronauts to be the face of what everyone thinks about when they think of the human space flight program. But we are really such a small part of it. There’s only a few of us, but there are hundreds and thousands of people down here that get us where we are. They are on the floor scheduling, training, and teaching us everything we know. They really are the experts. They teach us only exactly what we need to know so that way we can operate effectively when we do have our mission, but they’re the ones that make everything work.

Now that you have graduated, have you been assigned a mission?

Since we graduated, we still maintain all these different training aspects because we need to maintain efficiencies. So we still fly, we still do space walk training, we still take Russian, but just not at quite the same intense scale as when we first started it. And then each of the eight of us are assigned a different job within the office.

So for example, I have been assigned to the “cap com’’ branch, or the capsule communication branch. So I am the person in the mission control room who is actually speaking to the astronauts on the spaceship. So like in Apollo 13, the person in the control room who’s actually talking.

All eight of us are waiting for a mission and can be assigned hopefully within the next couple of years. Unfortunately, it’s one person at a time because we fly with a lot of international partners so there is really only one American assigned at a time. But hopefully within the next three to six years, I will be flying!

What will you miss the most, besides friends and family, when you are in space?

For me, the outdoors. My biggest hobbies are being outside, being in the trees, running, hiking, and camping.

It’s funny, when I was just in Maine, my friend from college was with me, who’s from Philadelphia, and she always laughs at me because I say things like, ‘I love trees.’ But when we were driving in northern Maine between Bangor and Caribou, I looked at the scenery on our entire drive, and I said to her, ‘Now do you understand why I love trees?’ It was nice to be up there in New England, and have a little taste of that.

Hiking in Boulder, Colorado. —Courtesy of Jessica Meir

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