Maine’s own Jessica Meir has made it to the top of her profession, but even bigger things might be coming: a stay aboard the International Space Station, a trip to the moon or even a journey to Mars.
Sometimes, the Caribou native has to pinch herself to believe it’s all true. Meir, after all, has dreamed of being an astronaut since she was 5, and in 2013 she was selected by NASA as one of eight members of its 21st astronaut class.
“I still can’t believe that I’m that person today, standing in front of you in this blue flight suit,” Meir said as she addressed more than 550 students during the annual Space Day celebration last Friday, hosted this year by Freeport Middle School. “In my high school yearbook, my plans were to go on a spacewalk.”
May 6 marked the 18th annual Space Day celebration, an event that includes members of academia, government, public and private industry and the U.S. military. Space Day is dedicated to the achievements, benefits and opportunities in the exploration and use of space and to encourage study of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subject.
Meir, a 1995 Caribou High School graduate, worked for three years in Lockheed Martin’s Human Research Facility, supporting human physiology research on the space shuttle and International Space Station. She participated in research flights on NASA’s reduced-gravity aircraft and served as an aquanaut crew member in the Aquarius underwater habitat for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations mission.
She had graduated with a biology degree from Brown University in 1999, and earned a master’s in space studies from International Space University, based in France, in 2000. Meir got her doctorate in marine biology, specializing diving physiology, from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2009
Now, she is qualified for future assignment.
Prior to Friday’s assembly in the Freeport Middle School gymnasium – also attended by students from Durham Community School and Mast Landing School – Meir said she awaits selection for an International Space Station mission.
“We look for assignments,” Meir told the Tri-Town Weekly, “and then comes three to four years of training.”
Meir said that while Mars would be an exciting mission, she first would want to land on the moon, as a training session. She’s not the least bit nervous regarding a stay on the space station.
“We’re so well trained, some of these things become automatic,” Meir said. “Typically, it’s a six-month stay.”
Meir said that the experiments conducted in the space station are “all for science.” That includes the development of cell phones, weather predictions, satellite TV and climate change research, she said.
Eighth-grader Maximo Steverlynck and Elli Sterling, a seventh-grader, are both interested in STEM subjects, and in space exploration.
“I really like math,” Steverlynck said, “so it’s a great thing for me. “Learning engineering, science and match are all very important if you want to have anything to do with space.”
Sterling said that the study of space provides her with many different perspectives.
“It’s just so cool that there are so many planets out there, and a possibility of seeing them,” she said.
During the assembly, students watched simultaneous projections on four screens. U.S. Sen. Angus King presented a short video message to the students. King thanked Sharon Eggleston, a retired Lockheed Martin senior project engineer, for arranging another Space Day. Since 2001, Eggleston has served as a northeast regional coordinator for the event.
The event, he said, “orients us outward.”
Meir, who lives in Houston, then took the microphone. She showed a photograph of Maine taken from space, with a circle around the Aroostook County town of Caribou.
“It is wonderful to be here in Maine,” she said. “It is home. It means a lot to be here.”
Meir said there are lots of opportunities for students.
“You just have to go out there and start looking for them,” she said.
In concert with videos, Meir then described observations she and her colleagues have done. The first involved emperor penguins, which can hold their breath underwater for 30 minutes. She was part of a crew that ventured to the Antarctic, and studied the penguins in their habitat. Meir and the team did dives and observed the penguins.
“We studied their physiology,” she said. “That was actually one of my most memorable moments, diving in the Antarctic.”
Meir also described to the students a study of geese. She also studied their physiology, as the geese flew in a wind tunnel.
Principal Ray Grogan praised Meir for “taking a Maine education and going a long way with it.”
Grogan said the staff and students at Freeport Middle School were thrilled to have Meir and other presenters doing a “hands-on science presentation.”
Maia Hall and her brother, Trevor, get their picture taken with astronaut Jessica Meir on Friday during Space Day at Freeport Middle School.
Astronaut Jessica Meir, a Caribou native, attracted plenty of attention last Friday for a Space Day assembly.
Jessica Meir, right, an astronaut from Maine, sits with military officials last Friday at Freeport Middle School, during Space Day activities.
Susan Nourse, acting Freeport police chief, and Michael McManus, school resource officer for Regional School Unit 5, chat with astronaut Jessica Meir outside Freeport Middle School last Friday. Meir was a special guest for the school’s Space Day.
Students from Durham Community School and Mast Landing School stream off buses and into Freeport Middle School for Space Day activities last Friday.