Last time around I got the opportunity to speak to Tom Marshburn who gave us some answers as to his inspiration for becoming an astronaut. This time around I got to speak to Jessica Meir, an astronaut selected in 2015 as part of NASA Astronaut Group 21.
Jessica spoke passionately about her work and her training and she talked about her hopes for future missions. Jessica had been working overnight as her rotation had changed but she was kind enough to stay a little longer and answer my questions but I didn’t want to keep her too long.
Hi Jessica, thanks for taking the time to speak to me! I understand you were working through the night so I won’t keep you for too long. So the first thing I wanted to ask is what was your inspiration for wanting to become an astronaut?
I can’t really put my finger on one thing, as others might do. My mum always says that I told her when I was 5 that I wanted to become an astronaut. My teacher in first grade told me that all the children were asked to draw a picture, and I drew an astronaut so I guess it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do from a very young age. Growing up in Maine, I always had the attitude of an explorer in the wilderness so I guess it’s part of me.
Were you a science fiction fan?
I wasn’t really a huge science fiction fan. All the guys here ask if your Star Trek or Star Wars and whilst I did watch the Star Wars movies growing up, I was never a huge fan. I did enjoy Battlestar Galactica later on though, that was a good series.
What would you be if you weren’t a scientist?
Science has always been a huge part of me so it’s a difficult question to answer. I imagine if I wasn’t a biologist, I would still want to work within the field of science in some respect. But if I had to choose outside of science, I guess I would say, as cheesy as it sounds, maybe a musician. I’ve always enjoyed playing instruments and I played piano, flute and piccolo when I was younger. I would like to play theatrical music in some respect.
Can you explain a bit about the NEEMO project? What was it like working at the Aquarius base?
It was a really amazing experience. I actually worked here before I became an astronaut as NASA use this facility for other directorates and training. I stayed with astronaut Scott Kelly, who recently spent a year in space, and Rex Walheim who flew 3 missions. I have a PHD in marine biology so it was brilliant training and a great experience for me to stay at this facility.
In general, the analogues are the best training we can do as astronauts as all the other training is just simulations. At this facility, and the other analogues we do, we can really test teamwork and crew dynamics which are incredibly important. We also went to Italy to work in a 25km long cave system that is run by the ESA. We spent a week in those caves completing missions and objectives, and the experience is really valuable. The cave system was amazing, it was like something from a science fiction novel.
Was teamwork an important factor in the training?
Training is always important. We train extremely hard to become proficient and then we have to keep training to maintain proficiency. Some people say that because a lot of astronauts are selected, and there aren’t thousands of missions, that many astronauts kind of drop off and never make it. But that really isn’t true; most astronauts that are ready, proficient and skilled will get their opportunity.
How did you feel when you were selected for NASA Astronaut Group 21?
It was complete shock when I got the phone call. I had worked at NASA before, from 2000-2003, so I knew a lot of the guys here before I applied. I first applied in 2009 and I worked really hard but there were so many great guys on the course that I made it to the final round and they said thanks for trying, but not this time. They did encourage me to try again and in 2013 they said it looks like second times a charm. When you look around at the other guys on the selection you think that you’ll never get it but I was incredibly happy when I did.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become an astronaut?
First you have the legal requirements to fulfill. You need to be a US citizen to join NASA, and you need a degree in a relevant field such as a science, technology or mathematics. Then you need to be passionate to see it through as it isn’t a quick process. You need to be passionate about what you are doing; in my personal experience, I was extremely passionate about marine biology and that’s why they chose me. If you aren’t passionate about what you are doing, and you’re just doing it for the sake of it, then you won’t make it.
What are your hopes for the space program in 10/20 years?
Personally I would love the opportunity to go to the International Space Station, and for my class, that has to be the realistic goal as it is our only manned platform. But it really is an exciting time to be an astronaut as we have commercial programs in the very near future where my class could work with Boeing or SpaceX and we also have the SLS and Orion. Personally, my dream mission would be to the Moon as I firmly believe it’s the next logical step to get the experience and training ready to land on Mars and beyond.