Astronaut trainee takes life to extremes in her research
Harvard biologist has studied how animals adapt to harsh environments
Biologist Jessica U. Meir has devoted her life to studying animals that thrive in Earth’s most extreme environments, hoping to unlock the secrets of high-
flying geese that soar over Mount Everest and emperor penguins that dive thousands of feet under the Antarctic ice.
But all the while, the 35-year-old Meir has hoped, too, that she would have a chance to explore the most extreme environment of them all: outer space.
This week, Meir, an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, has at last found her chance to travel to the final frontier as she joins the ranks of NASA’s newest class of potential astronauts. She was one of eight astronaut trainees selected by NASA from more than 6,000 applicants, the second-largest pool ever.
“This has been my dream since I was 5 years old,” said Meir, a native of Caribou, Maine, who attended space camp as an adolescent. The first time she applied to be an astronaut, in 2009, she made it to the final round before being cut. Three years later, she decided to try again.
“In the back of my mind, I thought this might be the very last time I applied,” Meir said. “It feels incredibly surreal that this happened. I’m in shock.”
If Meir and her colleagues successfully complete their two-year training program, they will become official US astronauts and may have the chance to fly in the first human missions to an asteroid in the 2020s and to Mars in the following decade.
They could also be among the first to launch from US soil on commercial American spacecraft, because of the retirement of the Columbia space shuttle in 2011.
“These new space explorers asked to join NASA because they know we’re doing big, bold things here, developing missions to go farther into space than ever before,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a prepared statement.
Meir is a comparative physiologist, a scientist who studies how different species are exquisitely adapted to survive in their environments. At the Anesthesia Center for Critical Care Research at MGH, she studies how Weddell seals and bar-headed geese thrive in oxygen-depleted habitats such as the sea and the upper atmosphere.
“This kind of research is also valuable in understanding the effect of long-duration space travel on the human body,” Meir said. Astronauts living in space undergo tests to check for bone loss, muscle atrophy, and changes in heart and breathing activity, all potential effects of living in a zero-gravity environment.
“Traveling to an asteroid or to Mars, how will that affect human physiology? Answering that question will be a critical part of making our next missions successful,” she said.
Meir, like her colleagues, will have to leave behind her current career to pursue space flight, with no guarantee that she will ever clamber aboard a spacecraft.
But she says that being an astronaut will combine intellectual and physical challenge in the same way that her work as a biologist does.
For example, she has gone scuba diving far under the Antarctic ice to collect data on the diving behavior of the penguins and seals.
“These are the kinds of challenges that make me happiest, and they are the same for an astronaut,” she said.
Meir added that her parents are accustomed to her “out of the ordinary” interests.
“They’re used to me being the one who does crazy things like jumping out of airplanes, skydiving,” she said.
Meir studied biology at Brown University and received her doctorate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It was at Scripps where her work was noted by Harvard Medical School anesthesiology professor Warren Zapol.
“Jessica found ways of solving incredibly interesting and difficult questions about spectacular creatures on our Earth,” Zapol wrote in an e-mail from Uganda, where he is working on a clinical trial.
While she pursued biology, Meir was also preparing for life as a space explorer. She received an advanced degree in space studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, and worked toward her pilot’s license.
“I can’t imagine a better job for Jessica than making space voyages safe for human interplanetary travelers,” Zapol wrote.
The announcement of the eight 2013 appointees came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first US woman in space, Sally Ride, who died last summer. Meir is one of four women, the highest proportion of female trainees in a class ever selected by NASA.
The other women are a helicopter pilot, a major in the US Marine Corps, and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist. All four men have military backgrounds.
Meir will report for duty in August at Johnson Space Center in Houston. There, she and her colleagues will begin a two-year program that includes learning how to operate robots, military flight instruction, and survival training.
If they successfully complete the program, the eight candidates will join the ranks of 49 current NASA astronauts, and perhaps have a chance to fly.
“You have to be patient, because now we have fewer flight opportunities.” Meir said. “But as everyone says, it’s incredibly worth it.”