Caribou native Jessica Meir could be the first woman to walk the moon.
Jessica Meir, 43, was recently chosen to be one of 18 astronauts on NASA’s Artemis Team, a group training for the first human missions in half a century to orbit and land on the moon. Ultimately, one of the nine women on the team will take those next large steps for humankind.
Meir could thus be the first woman to walk on the moon, fulfilling a dream she’s had since she was a kid in Caribou, the most northeastern city in the United States.
Whether or not Meir gets the moonwalk assignment, she has already made history. On October 18, 2019, during her nearly seven-month mission at the International Space Station, she and Christina Koch participated in the first all-female spacewalk—an event made more dramatic by the failure of a power unit and some last-minute contingency planning.
Meir had anticipated a post-mission press tour with visits in Maine. But by the time she came back to earth, landing in Kazakhstan on April 17, 2020, the first worldwide pandemic in a century had hit, and the tour was canceled.
Two days after NASA named Meir to the Artemis Team in December, I interviewed her via Zoom for Maine Women Magazine. We talked about everything from ground-breaking research to how to make a charcuterie board in a zero-gravity environment.
Hello! You’re the Maine woman everyone is talking about right now! Congratulations on being named to the Artemis Team.
Oh, thank you so much. It is an incredible time to be an astronaut. I’m still basking in the glory of my recent mission to the International Space Station, and this is the next step forward for NASA. It’s something that I’ve been dreaming about my whole life as well. When I was in first grade in Caribou and we were asked to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up, I draw an astronaut standing on the moon in a spacesuit and with a flag—that iconic Apollo image.
Your first-grade teacher probably didn’t think that was really going to happen.
We’re still in touch, actually. Her name is Marty Belanger, and I got an email from her the other day.
Wow! The last mission you were on, you were part of the first all-women’s spacewalk? What was that like? Did that feel like the realization of that dream you’ve always had, of walking in space?
I actually wrote in my Caribou High School yearbook that my future goal was to go for a spacewalk. Luckily, I’ve checked that one off.
And you might get to do it again!
I hope so! We have so many incredible opportunities at the Space Station, contributing to all the science. Really, just being there, being in space—that was my dream.But, on top of that, the vision that I’d always had was of being in a spacesuit, looking back on the planet. When you’re in your space suit, you’re really in your own self-contained life support system, just looking back at the earth through the thin veneer of your helmet visor.
That spacewalk was almost at the beginning of my mission. We almost describe it as being a newborn. You get up there, and you’ve had years and years of this really specific technical training, and you’re totally ready to support any of that. But what you can’t prepare for is how it feels to go about everyday tasks in microgravity. You feel like you’re reborn in terms of understanding how to feed yourself, how to go to the bathroom, how to move around—
You’re a scientist 24/7.
Right! All these basic life functions that fade into the background when you’re here on earth suddenly become really time-consuming and require a lot of mental capacity. I was at that early phase, getting used to everything, and I knew I had to get ready for my first spacewalk. Spacewalks are, absolutely, the most challenging thing we do, both mentally and physically, and the riskiest thing that we do. They demand all your concentration to make sure that you know all the tasks at hand so that you can accomplish the mission and to do so safely.
What is the mission, besides walking?
It’s kind of a misnomer; you aren’t really walking. We don’t really use our legs in microgravity. We’re actually using our hands to move around from one hand-hold to the next.
Spacewalks accomplish a variety of tasks. In general, any type of maintenance activity or upgrade that needs to be performed on the outside of the Space Station.
That day, we were upgrading the battery capacity of the Space Station to lithium-ion batteries. It was a planned maintenance upgrade of the power system. Partway through that, we had a failure of the BCDU, the battery-charged discharge unit—a vital component of the power relay architecture in terms of getting the power from the solar cells and distributing out to the Space Station. So, we had to replan. We thought we were just going to be doing battery upgrades, but instead we had to do a contingency spacewalk and prepare to change out that unit instead.
As you can imagine, this really demanded all my concentration, particularly because it was my first spacewalk. I didn’t have the capacity to think about the historical significance. But, after we knew that we had completed the job safely and successfully, then I had time to process what it meant—and I think that I have continued to process it over the past year. It means so much in terms of what we’ve achieved, not because of our personal achievements but paying tribute to the generations of women who pushed those boundaries when we truly didn’t have a seat at the table. I hope they’re the ones who are reveling in this.
Are you the first person from Maine to go to space?
No, there are a few others. There’s another current astronaut—Chris Cassidy, who is from York. Actually, we were in space together. He launched to space toward the end of my mission. He’s flown before, on the shuttle and the Space Station—we overlapped for about eight days. That was a great moment for Maine, when both Maine astronauts were up there together.
I understand that you were also the first woman with Swedish citizenship in space?
Yeah, my mother is Swedish, and I have dual citizenship. So, I was the first Swedish female, but, of course, I’m a NASA astronaut.
And on your father’s side, you’re Jewish. Did you celebrate Hanukkah in space last year?
I didn’t have a menorah, but I had menorah socks that became quite popular on social media.
When you looked back on earth, what was that moment like? Did it change your perspective?
It does. Other astronauts had told me that it made them care about the planet and the environment so much more. For me, protecting the environment has been very important. But it resonates even more loudly when you see with your own eyes how tenuous the band of the atmosphere is, how fragile it is. From the Space Station, you can see how the color of blue changes with the atmosphere—it’s thicker and a darker blue, and then it gets thinner and thinner with altitude and fades out into darkness.
Yes, it made me think a lot about deeply about how interconnected we are. You look down and see interconnected land masses and contiguous oceans, none of the manmade political boundaries, and it’s difficult to not see that we are in this together. We are one. That perspective shift is so important, especially now with everything that we’re dealing with. Thinking about environmental issues and protecting our environment, together, for all people. Thinking about this global pandemic that is affecting everybody on the planet. Thinking about the civil unrest that we’ve experienced here in our country this year. We can remember to take a step back and gain that perspective, to remember that we’re all in this together.
I understand that you’ve spent your career studying extreme conditions.
That’s right. My scientific research was looking at the physiology of animals in extreme environments. Deep-diving animals like emperor penguins in the Antarctic and elephant seals in California. Then the other extreme of high altitude: I studied the bar-headed goose, the species that migrates over the Himalayas twice a year, flying at an altitude where there is just half to a third of the oxygen that we have at sea level. My work centered around environments with low levels of oxygen.
Like space? What did you find surprising in space?
How it felt to be weightless all the time. Weightlessness makes everything so much more fun. Maybe you’ve just finished a meal or an experiment, and you can start bouncing up and down or twirling around or doing somersaults. It makes people more playful.
Did you feel joy?
Absolutely, and I’m glad you used that word. Everybody who watched that docking of the Space Station when I first came through the hatch described it as a look of genuine and complete joy. And that really was how I felt, pretty much the entire seven months.
How did you stay in touch with people back on earth and maintain relationships?
The whole world was getting used to video conferences, I guess, while we were in space, but we’ve being doing it at NASA for a while. We get weekly family conferences with our loved ones . . .
I bet you stayed in touch with your mother. I copyedited the Maine Bicentennial Community Cookbook, and she sent in a recipe of a chickpea salad.
Yeah, that’s one of my favorites! I make it all the time. I think most people who know me have had it. We thought that would be a good one.
That’s awesome! Were there any foods you enjoyed—or didn’t enjoy—in space?
I think people have this perception that we eat that kind of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream all the time. But NASA’s incredible food lab at the Johnson Space Center is always developing new foods and fine-tuning the menu. I was eating Turkish fish stew, braised red cabbage, sweet and savory kale, butternut squash, couscous with nuts. All kinds of different things—and we share with our Russian and European counterparts so that we can have even more variety.
We can have fun with food. I’m a little bit of a foodie, and I was flown some fancy cheeses in one of our cargo vehicles that came up as a surprise. But how do you make a charcuterie board when everything floats? I used condiments to make them stick. I used honey, and I used some jam. I used mustard for some sausage and salami slices.
You also communicated with students back on earth?
Absolutely. One of my first educational opportunities was with my school system in Caribou. That was one of the most meaningful for me.
How does it feel being a role model for girls and young women interested in science careers?
It’s sort of shocking when you realize that you’re on the flip side. My entire life I had looked up to astronauts and scientists and so many other types of people. For astronauts, it was that iconic blue flight suit.
Usually worn by a man?
Yeah. For me, when I became an astronaut and started wearing this flight suit and doing talks and interviews, sometimes I almost had to pinch myself. Wait a minute, that’s me? How did I get end up here? I think that’s a good story to remember for everyone. We all came from the same kind of roots. We’re all just people. We worked hard to get where we are.
It seems like everyone on the Artemis Team is highly specialized. How would you describe your specialty?
Now that we’re doing longer-duration missions, everybody is doing a little bit of everything. Just because I’m a scientist doesn’t mean that I’m only doing science. I’m also fixing the toilet, changing the light bulbs, going for spacewalks. That’s the way that our training has really evolved to be more comprehensive despite our individual backgrounds. With the moon missions, I think we might return a little bit more to having specialists. All that stuff is still being worked out about the members of the team. We have test pilots, just like the early astronauts. We have medical doctors. We have life scientists, physicists, chemists . . . I’m sure we can put the right team together for each of the missions, depending on what the objectives are.
What’s the timeline on the Artemis team?
We’ve been preparing at NASA for a long time now. We’re building the Orion capsule. We’ve been building the space launch system. Astronauts have been involved through all these phases, offering the crew perspective, testing out the new suits that we’ll be using and aspects of the control interface in the capsule. And as things get closer with the first mission and we understand more about the specific mission architecture, assignments will come.
Do you know for sure that you’ve going?
Somebody in our office is going. We don’t know who is going when yet, but they’ll be making these assignments, probably, about two years before each mission. Then we’ll start mission-specific training.
And there are things that you’ll be researching in space that are meant to improve life here on earth?
Absolutely. All the experiments we’re doing on the Space Station have multifaceted benefits. For example, you can grow larger and more pure crystals of protein in space, which has important implications for pharmaceutical development. If you can identify a binding site, you can identify a binding site for a particular protein that is an important part of any disease pathway. Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s. Various forms of cancer. We’ve been successful at growing some protein crystals that we wouldn’t be able to grow on earth, and that has led to development of drugs.
Some of the experiments I did on my mission look at cardiac cells and look at myostatin—an important component in the muscular and bone systems. We did some experiments with mice showing that when you inhibit myostatin—when you take away that gene, which is an important inhibitor to muscle growth—or you block some part of that cycle, you can have more muscle production and higher bone density. Mice that had those alterations in space flight during my mission were able to preserve their muscle mass and bone density, unlike the control mice. That will be important for future space travel. Right now, we offset that muscle and bone density loss with exercise. We have an incredible suite of exercise equipment up there, which is why we’re able to come back healthy. Those pieces of equipment, though, are really big. We won’t be able to have those on the Orion space craft, and we need to be more creative in something that will still maintain those physiological systems. We might need to augment with some kind of therapy, like the one I just discussed.
Even more important than those benefits for astronauts, there are bone and muscle degenerative states here on earth, like osteoporosis and variety of other disease states, that could benefit dramatically from this kind of therapy.
I love that component of science that we do on the Space Station. It’s not just about space. You can see direct and tangible benefits back on earth.
We’ll be rooting for you here In Maine.
Thank you. Growing up in Maine was such a wonderful experience. One of the biggest things is being able to share this with everybody—especially the people who were so fundamental in getting me to where I am today—but also sharing this with the whole planet. I had many appearances and trips back to Caribou planned, and none of that has happened given the restrictions we’re under now with COVID-19. But I’m optimistic that we’ll get on the road to recovery with a vaccine, and I’ll be back in Maine soon.