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.
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.
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.
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.