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SPACE CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE: NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir

SPACE CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE: NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir

Jessica Meir is perhaps the world’s most interesting explorer. Born to a Swedish mother and Iraqi-Israeli father in Caribou, Maine in 1977, she skis, hikes, cycles, runs, scuba dives, plays soccer, flies a plane, and speaks conversational Swedish and Russian. Did I also mention she is an astronaut?
Jessica Meir

In 2013, Meir was selected from among 6,372 other applicants to be one of eight members of NASA’s Astronaut Group 21. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Brown University, a Master of Science in Space Studies from the International Space University, and a Doctorate in Marine Biology (diving physiology) from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

On 25 September 2019, she accomplished her lifelong dream of going to space when she lifted off in a Soyuz rocket for the International Space Station (ISS). Meir helped conduct hundreds of scientific experiments, took part in the first three all-female spacewalks, then returned home on 17 April this year to a planet in the midst of a global pandemic. I spoke with her to hear about her many experiences.

Q: You have studied penguins in the Antarctic, seals in Northern California, and geese in British Columbia. How does all of that relate to space?

Meir: The common themes through all of that are exploration and extreme environments. As a kid, I was simply curious about the world around me. I think that really carried its way throughout my life. Maybe it was spurred by my mom; she’s Swedish, and Swedes have a close connection to nature. I grew up in a small town in Maine with all the trees, so that probably had something to do with it. Biology was my favorite subject, but I wanted to be an astronaut since I was five, so I pursued both in parallel. I studied diving physiology for my PhD, then I studied high-altitude birds. Now I guess space is the ultimate of extreme environments. It has come full circle for me because I previously worked at Nasa facilitating the experiments that were done on astronauts, then I did experiments on animals in extreme environments, and now I am the subject in the experiments.

(Jan. 15, 2020) --- NASA astronaut Jessica Meir is pictured during a spacewalk she conducted with NASA astronaut Christina Koch Jessica Meir (out of frame) to install new lithium-ion batteries that store and distribute power collected from solar arrays on the station’s Port-6 truss structure.
(April 2, 2020) --- NASA astronaut and Expedition 62 Flight Engineer conducts cardiac research in the Life Sciences Glovebox located in the Japanese Kibo laboratory module. The Engineered Heart Tissues investigation could promote a better understanding of cardiac function in microgravity which would be useful for drug development and other applications related to heart conditions on Earth.
NASA astronaut and Expedition 62 Flight Engineer Jessica Meir collects Protein Crystal Growth-10 experiment hardware for stowage inside JAXA's (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) Kibo laboratory module.

Q: What kind of research did you do during your trip to the ISS?

Meir: The ISS is a world class laboratory. We do all sorts of science, from how our physiology is affected by spaceflight and microgravity, such as bone density loss and muscle atrophy, to combustion science, material science, radiation, protein crystal growth, really every discipline. As a scientist, it’s exciting because every experiment on Earth always has this gravitational vector acting upon it. When you remove that elephant in the room, you can unleash a whole host of responses that you never anticipated.

Q: Do you have any idea what impacts might come from your research?

Meir: You can grow bigger and purer protein crystals in microgravity, which enables us to get a look at the 3-D structure of certain proteins, and that has been used in a lot of pharmacological research. We’ve been doing experiments on disease states of muscular dystrophy, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. One of the things we did during my mission was to grow Mizuna lettuce, which will be really important for future long-duration space travel. If we are going to get to Mars, we’re going to need to know how to do that. We had to send back a good portion of the lettuce to be studied, but we also got to eat half of it. 

Q: What was it like to return to Earth in the middle of a global pandemic?

Meir: There were only three of us on board, and it was surreal to look down at Earth and know all 7.5 billion people were affected by it. It was like the start of a really bad science fiction movie where the entire population of Earth is being wiped out and it’s just the three of us remaining. Even if there was no COVID, I really wanted to stay up there anyway. So, knowing that we would be coming back to a different planet where we couldn’t even do some of the things we had been missing made it more difficult. It was a sudden impact for us too, whereas everyone on Earth saw things getting worse and worse. We hadn’t seen other humans for seven months, and the first ones we saw were all masked. It even greatly affected NASA’s plans to get us back from Kazakhstan. Normally, the NASA aircraft picks us up and we’re back in Houston in 24 hours. But they had to do so many workarounds to figure out where they could get permission to land. When we got back to Houston, we were quarantined for an entire week because one of the hallmarks of spaceflight is the dysregulation of the immune system. I still haven’t seen my mom; I’m at my brother’s now getting some downtime to see friends and family.

Q: After returning, do you see Earth, humanity, or life any differently than you did before?

Meir: Seeing the Earth from above with your own eyes does change your perspective on things. For me, it was kind of how I expected it to be. For some astronauts who may not have thought much about environmentalism or conservation, it has a profound effect, because you look back at the Earth and you see this thin, tenuous band of atmosphere, and you see how beautiful and special this glowing blue orb is down there in the black void of space. The biggest thing for me was seeing that we are one. Looking down at the Earth and the continents and the oceans, all interconnected without any of these man-made geopolitical boundaries that we’ve imposed on ourselves, you really feel that this is our home. I wish I could share that with everyone.

NASA astronaut and Expedition 62 Flight Engineer Jessica Meir poses for a portrait inside the International Space Station's "window to the world," the cupola. The orbiting lab was flying above the middle of the Pacific Ocean at the time this photograph was taken.
(Nov. 15, 2019) --- NASA astronaut Jessica Meir is at the robotics workstation controlling the Canadarm2 robotic arm to support the first spacewalk to repair the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), the International Space Station's cosmic particle detector. Astronauts Luca Parmitano of ESA (European Space Agency) and Andrew Morgan of NASA worked six hours and 39 minutes in the vacuum of space during the first of at least four planned AMS repair spacewalks.
(Nov. 11, 2019) --- NASA astronaut Jessica Meir reviews robotics procedures in the U.S. Destiny laboratory module. She will operate the Canadarm2 robotic arm to support a series of spacewalks by astronauts Luca Parmitano and Andrew Morgan to repair the International Space Station's cosmic particle detector, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS).

Q: How much do you stay up to date with people and events back on Earth while you are up there?

Meir: We each have our own homepage on the internal network on the space station, so we can get whatever our favorite newspapers or podcasts are. I would get the New York Times or some NPR podcasts, stuff like that, and NASA would try to uplink those to us every day. We can also stream some things live if there’s satellite coverage and we have free time, but the connection is not as good, and we can only do that on our iPads. We can email friends and family or call people on their cellphones. We are a lot less connected there than we are back on Earth, but it is still available.

Q: What is the average day like at the ISS?

Meir: When we wake up, we have a special computer program that we open up, and the first thing we do is have a daily planning conference with the ground team and mission control. If we have any questions about the schedule, or if they have any pertinent information, we pass those on. The program has a timeline with all the day’s activities for each astronaut. So, I click on an event, open up the procedure, and go step-by-step through whatever I need to do, whether it’s fixing the toilet or conducting an experiment. One day you might be doing a spacewalk; another day you might be operating the robotic arm to capture one of the cargo vehicles that recently arrived. Every day is different, and everything is really active and varied.

Q: What job on Earth is most comparable to being an astronaut?

Meir: I think it is a combination of things. Constructing the space station, astronauts were basically glorified construction workers. But at the same time, we’re scientists, we’re plumbers, we’re electricians. It’s a mixture of all of these things.

Q: What has it been like to rise through a predominantly male industry as a woman?

Meir: I think things are trending in the right direction at NASA, just like other STEM fields. I never really had the sense that there was something I couldn’t do because I was a woman. When my class got selected in 2013, it was the first one to be 50% male and 50% female. So that just seemed normal. In the astronaut office overall, I think we are about one-third female now, but it’s trending in the right direction. I’ve been very fortunate not to have had as many of the struggles as the generation before us. I hope we get to a point in the future when the first all-female spacewalk isn’t a big deal anymore, but it was a big deal during my mission and I was privileged to be a part of that. For me and Christina (Koch), we didn’t really view it as a hallmark of our own success, because when we arrived at NASA we all received the same training. Everyone was held to the same standard. It didn’t really matter to me if I did the spacewalk with a man or a woman, but that’s not to downplay the historic achievement and what it meant for people. We didn’t always have a seat at the table. It was because of the generations that came before us pushing boundaries and shattering glass ceilings that we are where we are today.

Q: Have you ever doubted yourself along the way?

Meir: Absolutely. In graduate school, I realized that so many of my classmates, particularly the female students, had imposter syndrome. It is this feeling that I’m just lucky to be here; I’m not that smart; I just worked hard. Because of our underrepresentation in STEM, I think that is a real issue for women in those fields. I certainly felt that way, especially in graduate school when you’re figuring out what you’re doing. When you interview to become an astronaut, you meet all of these incredible people and think, “Wow, this is such a cool experience. I’m so lucky to be here, but there’s no way I’m going to be selected because these people are incredible.” All of the people who made it to the final round of selection deserve this position just as much as I do, if not more. But it ends up being a combination of timing and a lot of luck.

Q: Do you ever feel like your work as an astronaut overshadows your other achievements and identities?

Meir: It does sometimes. We get asked the same questions a lot, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my past research because I miss it. When you get selected to be an astronaut, you’re usually at the pinnacle of your career, but at the same time you have to give up that whole career. I loved my jobs in academia and as a research biologist, but I had to give those up to pursue this. During one of my vacations a few years ago, I went into the field to be an assistant for one of my colleagues and tag birds in Alaska because I missed that element of working with animals and being outside. Some people asked, “You’re taking a vacation to go do your previous job?” But for me, that was a vacation because I was out doing this thing that I loved.

Q: Could you give a funny story from your trip to the ISS?

Meir: Some of my favorite memories are just floating. Everything up there is so much more fun, and I think it brings out a childlike quality in everybody. Everyone turns into a five-year old because we’re floating. It adds a kind of levity to everything. You might be finishing your meal, and there are bungies on the floor to help maintain your position; every time I finished eating I would start bouncing up and down on the bungies and going up to the ceiling. You do things like that because you can. Suddenly you twirl around, curl into a ball and do a somersault, push your friends, throw some food at them and watch them grab it out of the air. Those everyday little things, those are what space is all about. I didn’t stop smiling for seven months.

Q: Are there any other quirks about living in space that most people don’t think about?

Meir: A lot of things are different without gravity. When you first get up there, you feel like a newborn. You don’t know how to use the bathroom; you don’t know how to eat; you don’t know how to brush your teeth. All these things that are background noise on Earth are suddenly difficult to do, like simply putting stuff down and making sure you know where you put it. You put your drink down, but you were up there, and now you’re down here, and there’s stuff everywhere. You’re utilizing the entire three-dimensional space, rather than just using what’s below you when you’re on Earth.

(Feb. 28, 2020) --- The three-member Expedition 62 crew poses for a portrait inside the Harmony module. Harmony is connected to three International Space Station laboratory modules -- Europe's Columbus, Japan's Kibo and the United States' Destiny lab modules. Clockwise from bottom are, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka.
(Feb. 9, 2020) --- NASA astronaut and Expedition 62 Flight Engineer Jessica Meir observes a floating sphere of water formed by microgravity inside the International Space Station's Kibo laboratory module.

Q: What is a misconception about space that people have?

Meir: People don’t realize what life on the station is like. They don’t understand that we’re living up there for a long time, so we have to do all of the normal things you have to do on Earth. We have to eat; we have to sleep; we have to go through all the daily life functions and still get the job done. I’ve been asked questions from “What was it like when you went to the Moon?” to “How was it to touch Saturn’s rings?” People aren’t very aware of what we’re doing at NASA these days.

Q: What advice do you have for people aspiring to work in space?

Meir: Do it! We are at a really cool time right now when there is so much going on. SpaceX was just successful in getting astronauts to the space station. Boeing is hopefully just around the corner. We’ve been flying with the Russians, which is an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. I love training over there and flying with them on the Soyuz. Space is becoming more and more accessible, and I think it’s a really exciting time for people to get involved.

(Jan. 20, 2020) --- NASA astronaut Jessica Meir is pictured during a spacewalk to finalize upgrading power systems on the International Space Station's Port-6 truss structure. Meir had her photograph taken by fellow NASA astronaut Christina Koch as both spacewalkers were working 266 miles above the Pacific Ocean off the coast of New Zealand.
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Regulating the Outer Limits

Regulating the Outer Limits

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Can Lawmakers Stay Ahead of a Fast-Evolving Commercial Space Industry?

Space is being commercialized. There’s no doubt about it. Amazon recently received approval from the FCC to begin launching roughly 3,200 internet satellites for its Kuiper constellation, and SpaceX has put 595 of its approved 12,000 Starlink satellites into orbit. Virgin Galactic is leading the charge for a new generation of space tourists, wrapping up testing of its suborbital flights which will allow wealthy customers to peer back at Earth while floating in microgravity.

www.cloudynights.com / t_image

In total, the global space economy is worth over $400 billion. The big banks have turned their heads and licked their lips, and word on Wall Street is that space will blossom into a multi-trillion-dollar-industry within the next 10-20 years.

The flood of private capital into this exotic sector over the last decade is both a cause for celebration and for concern to many analysts who welcome the creative power of profit-driven actors while recognizing the need for safety standards and regulations.

“In prior eras, innovation in space was largely pushed and funded by the government,” says Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project and Defense Budget Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 “Now, it’s private companies that are pushing into new space architectures, new missions, new technologies. That’s good; the government just has to figure out how to harness it.”

Private companies have been involved in space since the beginning, but their role has since changed dramatically. While in the early Space Age, corporations like Boeing and IBM, for which space was more of a side-gig, took on contracts for NASA, today a new array of players like SpaceX and Blue Origin are demonstrating the viability of business models based primarily if not exclusively on expanding humanity’s reach into the final frontier.

NASA has also surrendered much of its turf to the private sector, resulting in a kind of “creeping commercialization.” Rather than building products and selling them to the government, firms like SpaceX hold onto their property and sell services instead. Thus, in 2012 Musk’s Dragon became the first private spacecraft to dock with the ISS, and this month his Crew Dragon capsule became the first to carry astronauts into orbit.

These developments are molding a space economy in which not just governments but businesses and individuals are the consumers, and the former is increasingly left out of the picture. 

“I totally think that’s the way of the future,” says Bidushi Bhattacharya, ex-NASA scientist and CEO and founder of AstroHub. “It’s inevitable, because we’re becoming more and more dependent on space-based technology.”

The past decade saw the space industry get kicked into overdrive, and regulators will need to stay one step ahead of a fast-evolving landscape if they are to prevent abuse from corporations motivated solely by short-term profits. “Capitalism is essentially based on greed,” says Ram Jakhu, associate professor of law at McGill University and former director at the Institute of Air and Space Law. “The problem with greed is that there’s no limit. Once it goes beyond a certain point, governments step in. So, in the next five or ten years, you will see a lot of things change.”

One area where protections are needed is the environment. Companies are launching such a massive quantity of satellites into orbit that the term “mega-constellation” has been coined to describe them. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are the prime example. 

“There’s so many of them that they’re affecting astronomical observations,” says Bhattacharya. “When you look up there with a telescope, oftentimes the satellites streak across your field of view. I wouldn’t have thought of this as an issue five years ago, but it is now.”

Early morning on Monday, November 18th, Cliff Johnson (Northwestern University) and colleagues took this image using the Dark Energy Camera on the 4-meter Blanco Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Nineteen Starlink satellite trails crossed the image during the six-minute exposure. The image was taken as part of the DELVE survey, which is mapping the outskirts of the Magellanic Clouds, as well as much of the southern sky in search of new dwarf galaxies orbiting the Clouds or the Milky Way. DELVE Survey / CTIO / AURA / NSF

Add onto this the issue of proper waste disposal, the growing amount of space debris, and the question of space traffic management, and keeping the space environment clean seems like a daunting task. There are no trees in space, but the term “black-void huggers” doesn’t really roll off the tongue.

One problem is that the current legal regime is outdated. The laws governing commercial space activity were written at a time when companies were generally expected to do three basic things: launches, communications, and imagery. And the regulatory framework is fragmented along such lines. “The FAA does launch and reentry, the FCC does communications, and NOAA does imagery,” Harrison explains. “But there are all sorts of new missions that fall into the gaps and don’t fit neatly into one of these regulatory processes, and that’s a risk.”

One type of mission that falls far outside the purview of the agencies is mining. 

“Who do you get a license from to mine materials on the moon?” Harrison asks. “We want to make sure they do it in a way that doesn’t mess up the environment for everyone else. There needs to be some sort of regulatory framework around it, but there’s really not.”

Space mining is a long way off, but legal and technological advances are making it a reality. The Space Act of 2015 granted U.S. companies the rights to materials extracted from asteroids in the future, and a White House executive order signed last April stressed that the United States does not consider space to be a “global commons” and intends to harvest resources on the moon, such as water ice preserved on the floors of permanently shadowed craters that can be used for rocket fuel. These policies rub up against the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declares that no nation can own property in space.

Property rights isn’t the only issue. If asteroid mining becomes economically viable, something that seems more likely as the cost of space operations drops with developments in reusable rockets and in-space manufacturing, then private companies could create an “asteroid rush,” sending financial markets back home into a lurch as valuable metals introduced from outside upset the equilibrium between demand and supply.

Harrison advocates a middle-ground approach to space governance. “It’s a balancing act,” he says. “You want to make the regulations tight enough that people don’t do bad things, but loose enough that companies are incentivized to bring the benefits of space to more people on Earth.” Finding this balance will be difficult, however, as the space economy becomes more globalized. Harrison cautions against a “race to the bottom” where countries relax their regulatory protections to attract foreign investment.

Presently, the space economy is relatively immature. “The industry is really fragmented, says Narayan Prasad, chief operations officer at satsearch. “Just look at the automotive or aviation industries and how diversified their supply chains are. Then look at space, and it’s like fifty years behind.”

International law is notoriously toothless, but countries with a lot of influence to throw around can pressure others into adopting similar frameworks. “When the United States regulates, other countries follow,” Jakhu says. This pattern could change, however, as China’s rise to a major space-faring superpower creates a bipolar world in which smaller states feel pressured to standardize their regulations with one regime or the other.

Chris Tolve

Chris Tolve

Space Channel News

About Chris Tolve

Editorial/content writer covering a range of sectors in space (politics, current events, history, entertainment, business, and marketing). 

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The World is Blind in Space, and Nobody is Talking About It

The World is Blind in Space, and Nobody is Talking About It

Chris Tolve

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How big data can create a safer, more sustainable space

Right now, hundreds of thousands of objects are zipping around the Earth at orbital velocity. Some of them are satellites, some are dead rockets, and some are merely debris. Most of them, however, are never tracked by anyone. And many of them present a natural hazard, or potentially a deliberate threat, to our assets.

“Nobody is able to achieve persistent monitoring of everything all the time,” says Moriba Jah, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “So there’s gaps. That’s part of the paranoia of the US government.”

The united States controls a sophisticated network of radars and telescopes on the ground, but the radars don’t capture everything, and the telescopes mostly work at night. Moreover, assuming they do track something, their measurements are generally inaccurate. “It’s like taking glasses and rubbing a Hershey bar on them,” Jah says.

A ground sensor tracking a satellite in low Earth orbit is probably off by about 100 m, and that estimate gets worse the farther away the satellite is. “Altogether, we really don’t have that great data,” says Brian Weeden, director of program planning at Secure World Foundation, an NGO that promotes space sustainability and security. “I think I would give it a four out of 10.”

Out of the hundreds of thousands of objects orbiting the Earth, the US military only tracks around 24-25,000. The rest are less than 10 cm large, or roughly the size of a softball, too small for the sensors to pick up. But even a quarter flying at 17,000 mph can damage a satellite, and without the data to know where it is, space becomes a hostile environment. 

“We can’t avoid collisions unless we know not only where stuff is, but where it is going,” says Weeden.

An object’s location and trajectory are only one piece of the picture, though. We may be able to roughly measure an object’s orbit, but that tells us nothing about who owns it, what it can do, or what its purpose is. This problem Jah calls “the identity crisis.” With no knowledge of an object’s characteristics, there is no way to distinguish a shard of metal from a functional satellite. “So in a Shakespearean sense,” Jah says,” debris or not debris? That is the question.”

As of now, the US military publically catalogues about 21,900 objects in space. That leaves roughly 3-4000 objects larger than 10 cm that are being tracked, but whose identities are unknown. To Jah, this blind spot represents not just a mild concern, a security threat.

“The danger is misinterpretation, miscommunication, and escalation of behavior in space,” he says. “It’s like, ah, here’s this Chinese satellite that’s coming close to my American satellite. Why are they doing this? Are they trying to spy on me or hurt my satellite?”

Weeden expresses more skepticism about the threat of nefarious activity. “I think that’s highly unlikely,” he says. “There are some people who are worried about that, but it’s much more about avoiding collisions… There’s just no examples of somebody destroying someone else’s satellite. You could get a lot of the same effects just by jamming the signals, or interfering with them on the ground.”

Regardless of the likelihood of an attack, the mere uncertainty creates tension. “You don’t have continuous supervision,” Jah says. “So when an anomaly happens, it’s hard to tell whether it was something intentional or an act of God.” To remedy this, he prescribes what is known as a knowledge graph.

“A knowledge graph is a graph database with an ontology or schema put on top of it, semantically linking things together,” he explains. “It facilitates big data analytics.” To translate that into English, a knowledge graph is a framework that links together different kinds of data to see how they are related. For example, it could take satellite locations, ownerships and capabilities, then connect them all together to see who owns which satellite and what it can do. Each piece of information is only somewhat helpful on its own, but infinitely useful put together.

“That’s the Holy Grail,” Weeden says. “There’s this whole other suite of stuff you could be collecting data on that gives you a much better picture of what something is and what it’s doing.” So the question is: why has nobody linked that data together yet?

Part of the answer has to do with antiquated technology. “software development is one area where the Pentagon consistently falls on its ass,” Weeden says. “To give an example, when I was in the Air Force in 2004, we got told, ‘we’re going to train you to use these two computer systems, but don’t get attached because they’re getting replaced with something else in 2005.’ When I left in 2007, we were still using those two systems. And as far as I know, they’re still being used operationally.”

Another part of the answer has to do with a lack of international cooperation. “There’s not a lot of incentives to make the data available,” Weeden explains. Governments don’t want to disclose how much they know or expose operational secrets, and private companies don’t want to publicize anomalies with their assets because it might trigger insurance markets or cause bad PR. There are some commercial sellers of data, but they won’t give up their property without compensation.

Space is becoming increasingly militarized, and if states want to enforce arms controls in that domain, they will first need to monitor it. “There’s no global pool of observational data,” Jah laments. And an effective regulatory regime in space will be nearly impossible without it. As it stands, the vast expanse outside the Earth’s atmosphere, despite being vital to our internet, telecommunications, GPS, and countless other technologies, is the new wild west.

As space debris accumulates and more objects are launched into orbit, the environment is becoming more complex. State and private actors alike have been less than scrupulous with properly disposing of junk assets. The US, Russia, China and India have conducted over 70 anti-satellite tests since 1959, with 20 occuring since 2005, and blowing up satellites unsurprisingly creates a lot of debris.

International regulators can’t control the growth of debris until they can hold culprits accountable. And that, Jah says, is a very difficult task without knowledge graphs. “Who’s tracking this? Who’s making the links? Nobody’s doing that,” he says. “The world’s f#@%!&%g blind to this! It’s crazy.”

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