Destination space

long read

After several stops along the way, Harvard professor begins her training as NASA astronaut

When Jessica Meir was in first grade, her teacher asked the students to draw pictures of what they wanted to be when they grew up.

Meir drew an astronaut.

Three decades later, Meir has stepped into that picture. In June, she was selected from more than 6,100 applicants to be one of eight in NASA’s latest astronaut class, the first selected in four years. This summer, she took a leave from her post as assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to head to Houston for two years of astronaut training.

Those who know Meir say the leap into space is not much of a stretch.

She’s a scientist who spent 10 years investigating how animals survive in extreme environments, going to extremes herself to find out. She’s an accomplished scuba diver, a pilot, a backcountry skier, and a researcher dedicated enough to spend months with newly hatched goslings to make them willing partners in an investigation of oxygen consumption during flight.

“Does she have the right stuff? Of course she does,” said Warren Zapol, the Reginald Jenney Professor of Anaesthesia at HMS and MGH, who recruited her to the hospital.

Her selection makes Meir just the newest member of the Harvard community to tread the path toward space. Stephanie Wilson, an engineer who graduated from Harvard College in 1988, flew three trips to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle, in 2006, 2007, and 2010, and served as the chief marshal of last spring’s Commencement ceremonies. Other members of the Harvard community have walked on the moon, flown space shuttle missions, and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope (which was launched with a mirror aberration that, uncorrected, would have short-circuited what has since become one of NASA’s most successful orbiting telescopes).

Those who know Meir think “of course” when hearing about the NASA selection, but the news was something of a shock to her. It was the jolting, life-altering return of a long-held dream of which she had reluctantly begun to let go.

Meir had worked for many years on the goal, from space camp as a high school student to space-focused experiments while an undergraduate at Brown University. There was a master’s degree in space science from the International Space University in France, and three years of working at NASA itself, providing scientific support for astronauts performing experiments in space.

But with the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet and NASA’s reduction of its astronaut classes, Meir began to realize that there were so few slots available that even many more years of dedication, focus, and hard work could still leave her earthbound.

It was at about this time that Meir was asked to join a NASA program aboard Aquarius, a permanent undersea outpost operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). To NASA managers, Aquarius offered the opportunity to simulate some important aspects of space flight: a small team, close confinement, isolation, and the need for life-support equipment in order to venture outside.

The undersea experience got Meir, who had become a certified scuba diver in college, thinking of career paths that might not lead to space. The journey on which she subsequently embarked led her away from NASA in 2003 and back again, through MGH, a wind tunnel at the University of British Columbia, and the frozen, glaring landscape of a Scripps Institution of Oceanography research camp far out on the Antarctic sea ice.

The girl from Caribou

Meir grew up in Caribou, Maine, a community then numbering roughly 10,000 in a rural corner of the state whose claim to fame, according to the city website, is that it is “the Most Northeastern City in the United States.”

Meir’s father was a general surgeon in town, and her mother was a former nurse with plenty to do raising the family’s five children. Meir, the youngest, recalls an active childhood that had her on cross-country skis by the time she was 2.

“I think maybe it was because of where I grew up, but I feel really content and relaxed when I’m in the woods,” Meir said.

Meir recalls being enamored with space from an early age, though she disputes her brother Jonathan’s joking claims that he was the one who gave her the idea.

“He said, ‘It was my space-themed Lego set,’” Meir said, “but I don’t think that that’s true.”

After high school, Meir went to Brown, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1999. By then she had already begun space-related scientific investigations, and was part of a team that won a student competition to fly on NASA’s “vomit comet,” a plane that simulates weightlessness through a series of climbs and dives that, at their peak, suspend passengers in the air. She and her teammates devised an experiment — using pigs’ feet as an analog for human flesh — to test surgical glue against sutures for closing wounds in space.

After graduating, Meir spent a year at the International Space University, studying policy, law, orbital mechanics, biomedical physics, and other space-related topics.

After earning a master’s degree in 2000, Meir got a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She worked in the human research facility, acting as a liaison between scientists on Earth and the astronauts who would conduct experiments on the shuttle or the International Space Station. During flights, she and colleagues sat in the control room and worked with astronauts to ensure that experiments were conducted properly. She also took advantage of her time in Houston — and the steady paycheck — to earn her pilot’s license.

Wrangling at the penguin ranch

In 2003, Meir applied to a doctoral program at Scripps at the University of California, San Diego. She was interested in the research of Paul Ponganis and Gerald Kooyman, who had pioneered techniques to study the physiology of animals that had adapted to a most extreme environment: Antarctica’s emperor penguins.

Meir’s project examined physiological adaptations to extreme oxygen deprivation, focusing on both the penguins and elephant seals. The work involved sedating napping elephant seals on California’s beaches so they could be equipped with monitoring instruments, and several long trips to Antarctica to study penguins.

The Antarctic research site, dubbed the “penguin ranch,” was miles out on the ice, in an area with no cracks or holes. Researchers set up camp, fenced in an area, and then drilled a hole through the 9-foot-thick ice. The hole would give penguins access to the water and the fish they feed on but would force them to return to the ranch to climb onto the ice. That setup, Ponganis said, would allow researchers to outfit the birds with instruments to monitor their physiology while diving and retrieve the data on the birds’ return.

Of course, once the ranch was set up, the researchers still needed penguins.

Researchers took helicopters to visit groups of non-breeding penguins on the ice’s edge. The birds’ curiosity worked in the humans’ favor, as the penguins would sometimes approach on their own. When the researchers edged closer, though, the birds turned to walk or toboggan away. That’s when researchers wrapped them in a bear hug from behind, out of reach of their sharp beaks, though not entirely safe from the bruising slaps their wings can deliver.

“She never balked,” Ponganis said of Meir’s penguin-catching skills. “She always wanted to do it, whether scuba diving down there or catching birds. Whatever we were doing, she was … very interested in it, and wanted hands-on experience doing it.”

Back at the ranch, the penguins were equipped with small backpack monitors to correlate variables like heart rate and blood oxygen levels with time and depth of dive.

“How can they dive so deep and for so long?” Meir summed up the research question. “They’re air-breathing, breath-hold divers just like us, but an emperor penguin can dive for almost 30 minutes. An elephant seal can dive for two hours on a single breath.”

Researchers have known for some time that diving animals have enhanced oxygen storage in their blood, through both higher blood volume and higher concentration of the oxygen-carrying molecule hemoglobin. They also store more oxygen in their muscles, through high levels of a molecule called myoglobin.

Meir’s work showed that the animals’ bodies also use what oxygen they have very efficiently and that the animals can tolerate far lower blood oxygen levels than humans can.

“We’d be unconscious, and they’re still down there catching fish. They’re totally fine, and they do it all the time,” Meir said.

Meir said she enjoyed working in an environment that tested her physically as well as mentally. A day spent digging out from a storm was repaid times over with the view of a 13,000-foot volcano smoking in the distance, dives under the ice, and time spent in the ranch’s observation tube thrust through the ice, she said.

“You could stay down there for hours. The penguins are putting on an underwater ballet,” Meir said. “It’s crazy how graceful and agile they are.”

Meir received her Ph.D. in 2009 and signed up for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, where zoology professor William Milsom was also researching physiological adaptations to low-oxygen environments.

Meir focused her postdoctoral work on the world’s highest-flying birds: bar-headed geese. During their twice-a-year migrations, the geese use the costliest form of animal locomotion — flight — to cross the planet’s highest mountains, the Himalayas, where oxygen levels are between a third and half that at sea level.

While bar-headed geese had been studied before, they hadn’t been examined while flying in-low oxygen conditions, an omission Meir wanted to remedy by using UBC’s wind tunnel.

Imprinting on a flock of geese

Since wild geese wouldn’t cooperate with such an experiment, Meir decided the best course was to imprint a clutch of goslings on herself to create study subjects that would be easier to train.

She contacted a breeder in North Carolina and went though the slow process of becoming mother goose. Meir made sure she was the first thing the goslings saw when they hatched and spent hours each day with them as they grew. When she moved, the goslings moved, following her obediently and piling onto her lap when she sat down.

“They grow up so fast,” Meir said. “That’s what all mothers say, but in this case it’s true.”

When the geese had grown enough for the experiments to begin, she brought them to Vancouver, only to find the wind tunnel broken. So she began their training outside, riding on a bicycle as they flew along behind. They soon outraced her and she had to borrow a scooter to stay ahead.

“They’d fly so close that the wingtip is brushing your shoulder, and you’re looking in the eye of a flying bird,” Meir said. “That was really amazing.”

As with the penguins, Meir trained them to fly with small backpacks containing instruments to measure physiological variables. She also trained them to fly with facemasks that allowed her to monitor the air breathed in and out and to alter its composition, adding extra nitrogen to simulate the thin air at high altitudes.

Though Zapol was thousands of miles away at MGH, Meir’s work caught his attention. Zapol, the hospital’s former anesthetist-in-chief, had long been interested in how animals adapt to low oxygen environments because of potential applications to anesthetized patients. One possible future use, he said, would be to minimize intubation, a risky, invasive procedure used to keep airways open. The need to intubate might be lessened if insights gleaned from diving animals, for example, allowed patients to hold their breath for extended periods.

Zapol has conducted research on deep-diving Weddell seals, which live in the Antarctic and can stay under for as long as 90 minutes. He is collaborating with scientists at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT to decode the Weddell seal genome, a development that will help in understanding the animal’s physiological adaptations. He recruited Meir to MGH in the fall of 2012 for a new study on the animals.

“When I heard about Jessica, I was thrilled to see someone else interested in deep diving,” Zapol said. “Now would be the time to focus on the adaptations the seals have.”

Zapol described Meir as “attractive” in a way that makes people interested in what she’s thinking and that naturally draws people to her. “NASA has made a very good choice,” he said. “She’s going to be a great ambassador for science.”

Meir worked on the seal project with Emmanuel Buys, assistant professor of anesthesia at HMS, who was struck not only by Meir’s research skills, but also by her infectious enthusiasm and ability to communicate complex topics.

“We recently pitched one of our projects to a potential collaborator who seemed rather unenthusiastic when we walked in,” Buys said. “Jessica’s enthusiasm and knowledge quickly turned the tide, resulting in what is currently developing into a very interesting collaboration.”

Meir talked about her acceptance as an astronaut candidate almost nonstop in the weeks after it was announced, and gave numerous interviews to the media. Still, the reality of it was slow to sink in.

“It’s just so surreal that this could come true, that this childhood dream could actually happen,” Meir said. “It sounds trite, but hopefully it will inspire people that your dreams actually can come true.”

Meir moved to Houston in August and is now amid astronaut training, which includes, among many other things, Russian language lessons, a land survival course, and additional training at the U.S. Navy flight school in Florida.

“The vision I’ve always had, the thing I’ve always wanted, was that feeling of looking back at the Earth, with the entirety of everything you ever knew below you,” Meir said. “I can’t imagine how that would feel.”