She’s back on terra firma, enjoying life with friends and family. But astronaut Jessica Meir aches to return to the International Space Station, where the UC San Diego graduate recently spent seven months orbiting Earth at 5 miles a second.
Meir did three spacewalks, conducted biomedical research, and gave people on Earth who were sheltering-in-place from the novel coronavirus advice about how to live in isolation.
She also found time to peer through a camera at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she earned a doctorate just over a decade ago.
Meir, who might be chosen for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, spoke to the Union-Tribune from Houston about the experience of living in space and what her life might be like in years to come.
Q: I’m wondering if you felt a sense of emotional whiplash when your space capsule landed in Kazakhstan last month. It was your dream to live and work in space. But you were away from Earth for months. Can you describe what those first moments back on the ground were like?
A: It was a wild ride coming down. And when you land it is such an adjustment for your body — having that force of gravity after not having it for seven months. It is a little bit overwhelming all around, and you’re really immersed in the moment given how dynamic the descent process is — so I didn’t find myself getting philosophical about it until more time had passed post landing.
As you probably saw from the footage, I was happier than I’ve ever been (in space). I had a big smile on my face pretty much the entire seven months. I would have preferred to stay up there longer, even before what happened with COVID-19. With everything changing the way it did there was even less motivation to come back down to Earth.
Of course it was nice to see some familiar faces and coming back to our friends and family, and experiencing the smell of Earth … It is the smell of life.
Q: But the landing was quite something…
A: The moment the hatch opened we could see everybody wearing masks and we see this completely different world that we returned to. It was an interesting way to come home for sure.
Jessica Meir (left) and Christina Koch performed the first all-female spacewalks last fall from the International Space Station
Q: I know that extended time in space can affect the immune system of an astronaut. What kind of precautions did they have to take when you finally returned to Earth?
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A: That’s right. We know the immune system can be altered by microgravity, or the spaceflight environment or stress. There are some marked differences. For example, T-cell count decreases and astronauts sometimes experience the reactivation of latent viruses. Given that our immune systems were likely somewhat compromised, they may not have been well equipped to deal with a virus if we were exposed to one.
They limited the number of personnel at the landing site. Then once we got back home they minimized the number of people we could see.
Once astronauts get back to Houston they will normally spend the night in the quarantine facility at NASA. But then, as long as they’re feeling well, they’re allowed to go back to their homes to sleep and return for the medical tests they’d take over the subsequent days. But they wanted to make sure that we were well protected and would recover so they put us in quarantine for a full week.
Q: So you couldn’t immediately hug family and friends, right?
A: No. I still haven’t hugged anybody in my family. My mom was going to come out shortly after we landed. But I have not seen her yet, unfortunately. My closest friend from the astronaut office, Anne McClain, was able to quarantine with us. Sometimes you just need help during those first days when you’re adjusting to gravity. It was good to have someone there who could help. And I had a few people I could hug which was good because I’m a hugger.
U.S. astronaut Jessica Meir waves shortly after the landing of the Russian Soyuz MS-15 space capsule near Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on April 17, 2020. An International Space Station crew has landed safely after more than 200 days in space.
Q: Was there a specific moment in March or April when the reality of the coronavirus pandemic really hit you in the gut and you understood that this was going to be a horrible moment in human history?
A: Like everybody else, I was sort of slow at realizing how extreme this was going to be. We aren’t updated with as much news as other people on the Space Station. … And we didn’t really have time to process it. When the world was grinding to a halt we were still carrying out our mission. Our day-to-day operations did not change at all.
But there were several instances in which (fellow astronaut) Drew Morgan and I recorded some of our conversations because we knew that it would be good to look back on it, and we wanted to capture what some of our initial thoughts were.
Q: NASA trains you to work in isolation. Was there a particular lesson from that training that could be used by people on Earth who are sheltering-in-place from the coronavirus?
A: Yes. The first is to really stick to a routine. I think that is a huge part of your psychological well-being. And to give yourself some milestones in your daily actions despite what’s imposed on you by the virus. And to exercise, as well. We know that exercise is not only important for your physical health but your mental health.
NASA astronaut Jessica Meir earned a doctorate at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Q. Years ago, I interviewed astronaut Tracy Caldwell after she returned from a mission. She spoke at UC Irvine, where she had served as a postdoc. Tracy really got choked up when she described what it was like to turn her attention from the Earth below and to look out into deep space. Did you have a moment like that — something that really chokes you up?
A: Yeah, it’s really interesting to think about that view and how it changes you as a person. That’s something that I thought about a lot before the flight. I was thinking about it in two ways. First, I was thinking how it really makes a lot of people appreciate how precious and fragile the Earth really is. You look at this thin, tenuous blue band that is the atmosphere and realize that it is incredibly fragile and what we need to do to protect it. That was always important to me going back in my previous life as a scientist at Scripps — understanding how fragile and precious the ocean is. But of course, seeing it with my own eyes for the first time makes that even more of a dramatic realization for me.
And you also realize how insignificant we really are as a species, as a planet, in the scope of the solar system and the universe. I think that perspective is really valuable. I wish every human could experience it. Because when you look down at the Earth and see no boundaries and no borders you realize that we are all truly in this together.
Q: You performed three spacewalks. I know that NASA trains you to be focused-focused-focused on your work. But was there a moment when you paused to really enjoy the view?
A: There were a few. The first one is when you come out of the hatch and look down at your boots and there’s nothing else except for the Earth below. And you realize that your visor is the only thing that separates you from space. And the colors are even more vivid than they are looking through the windows of the space station.
In another moment (astronaut) Christina Koch and I were looking down as we were coming over the coast of California. I think I even made a little shout out to Scripps in that moment. It was really cool. I was not only seeing a place that was familiar, but a place where I had lived. It was mind blowing.
Q: Could you see Scripps from space?
A: We could, especially when I used the 400mm (camera) lens. You could very easily pick out the pier.
Q: What was your gut reaction to that given your history there?
A: It was extraordinary. Looking at Southern California with that lens you can see every valley, the mountains, the hills, I could see the runway at Miramar. I could see the Scripps Pier. I could see Mount Soledad. I could see the harbor. You could see the border and how the landscape changes between the U.S. and Mexico.
UC San Diego graduate Jessica Meir spent seven months on the International Space Station
Q: You’ve been home for about a month. You’ve had time to reflect. I’m wondering whether you think you have fundamentally changed as a person. Have you?
A: I’m not sure yet. Your body is still going through so much in terms of adapting to gravity again, and the transition coming down is so much more difficult than it is going up.
I do wonder if things are really going to be different for me now that I have accomplished a goal that I have had since I was 5. Maybe I’ll be on one of those early Artemis missions that take us back to the moon. I’m really not sure, but that would be my goal. I think it is even more difficult to understand if I have changed when we came back to such a completely different climate now. Everything is so different. I’m not sure if it is the planet or me, but I think that after a little bit more time I’ll be better able to answer that.