In Conversation With… Dr Jessica Meir, Astronaut on the ISS

GSAL Junior School

Editor’s Note: Students at GSAL Junior School were given the unique opportunity to communicate with NASA astronaut Dr Jessica Meir during her time on the International Space Station (ISS). On October 18, 2019, Jessica made history when she undertook the first all-female spacewalk with fellow astronaut Christina Koch. The school link and talk were made possible thanks to former Junior School teacher Avigayil Franklin’s father, Dr Meir Greenfeld, who is Jessica’s cousin. Dr Greenfeld has special NASA communication clearance, allowing him to email Jessica directly on the ISS, and he also travelled to Kazakhstan to watch the launch. Junior School students asked Jessica a number of fascinating questions, via Dr Greenfeld, the answers to which are shared below. Year 5 students have been studying our planet in the Solar System and forces, so this was a timely opportunity to develop their knowledge and understanding beyond the classroom Earth! Special permission has kindly been given to share the presentation and publish the conversation here in The GSAL Journal. Many thanks to everyone who has made this inspirational event possible. HDB

Baikonur for Schools Jessica Meir ISS Presentation (Credit: Dr Meir Greenfeld)

Feeling inspired? Check out the ISSET Space & STEM Summer School 2020, open to all students in Years 9-13. You will get the unique opportunity to work with NASA Astronauts, rocket scientists and NASA personnel for a week. CPD

What has been your favourite moment so far?

Tough to say – so many amazing moments! But I think I’d have to say my spacewalk – going out the hatch for the first time and looking down and seeing my boots, and nothing between them and the spectacular Earth below.

What is your daily routine?

Every day is a bit different, depending on what the ground team has planned for us that day.  On a “normal” day we have a daily planning conference around 7:15 am, so everyone is awake and ready to start working then. Then you look at the schedule laid out for you (we have a special computer program that has our daily timeline on it, you may have caught a glance on your tour of Mission Control). You go from one activity to the next, ranging from space station maintenance (regular maintenance activities or repairs as needed), to science experiments of all types, to public affairs/outreach events on some days, exercise every day (both cardio on the treadmill or the bicycle and weight lifting), etc. Some days have special activities that take the whole day (certain experiments, or on days that we have spacewalks like today).

How do you sleep in Space?

We each have our own crew quarters (CQ) – about a phone booth size space (if kids know what that is anymore, I suppose maybe so in London?) where we sleep and have some personal items (including a laptop which I’m typing on right now). We have a sleeping bag attached to one wall – this helps keep you restrained a bit. People have different strategies, some people strap themselves in a bit more. I just float in my sleeping bag, sometimes I crunch down a bit into a corner. 

What do you miss about Earth?

Actually nothing! I thought I would really yearn for nature, being outside, in the trees, fresh air, etc. – but so far after > 2 months, I really don’t miss anything. I think mainly because this is such a new and special environment and there are so many incredible things (including just looking out the window) that we are experiencing all the time. And of course this is something that I’ve been dreaming about almost my entire life. We’ll see if that changes over the next 4.5 months! Of course you miss your family and friends though too . . .

Could you describe a spacewalk?

We train so much for this in the pool in Houston, that much like the launch description, it is very easy to just rely on the muscle memory and familiarity of your training. We’ve done these things (motions in the suit, using the tools, etc.) so many times, it almost seems automatic. It is definitely the most challenging thing we do as astronauts, both mentally and physically – but perhaps the most rewarding as well! The feeling of being out there on our own, in your own mini-spaceship with its own life support system, and looking back at the Earth through only your visor – it is very difficult to put into words!

Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA): it is difficult to describe that feeling going out the hatch, looking down and seeing your boots, and the Earth below and nothing else. I didn’t have a feeling of falling or fear that some people have described (other than fear of making a mistake of course!) – felt familiar since you have so much muscle memory working in the suit and with all the tools, but the instability of complete weightlessness in the suit (even though my brain was prepared for it) was hard to believe. It is difficult to stabilize yourself without using the BRT (body restraint tether, our “3rd arm”). I was simply in awe of the views and the entire experience. My first translation had me going all the way out to the end of P6 (the furthest edge of the truss), by myself. We made an amazing pass over SoCal (right over San Diego!) when Christina and I were under the hatch on one of our trips back to airlock. 

Donald Trump call: we found out hours into the EVA, only 20 minutes before the call that it was happening (it wasn’t supposed to happen during the EVA, we were previously told it would be an event after the spacewalk). My strategy for dealing with that whole build up was to ignore it and maybe it would go away – I had to concentrate and prepare for my first spacewalk (so just kept avoiding thinking about it)! So, in the end was completely unprepared on what I would say – just came up with it spur of the moment (but seemed to work out).

What experiments are you doing and why?

We do all kinds of research, across a variety of disciplines – from human research looking at the physiological and medical effects of the spaceflight environment (where we serve as the test subjects), to technology development, physical science, earth and space science, and biology and biotechnology. Here are a few examples:

The VEGGIE experiment is studying the effects of light quality and fertilizer on Mizuna mustard green crop, microbial safety, nutritional value and taste using the Vegetable Production System. The ability to grow fresh food in space will be critical for deep space exploration missions. We have been watering this crop daily, and have been fortunate enough to have two successful harvests since I’ve been on-board – meaning in addition to collecting valuable data for the scientists on the ground, we also received the reward of a fresh salad at dinner!

The Probiotics experiment is studying the impact of the LcS probiotic strain on human immune function and intestinal microbiota in astronauts. Some harmful bacteria such as Salmonella grow stronger in microgravity. Understanding the effect of specific probiotic strains can help keep astronauts healthy in space as well as using knowledge of how probiotics cope with extreme conditions to improve probiotics’ shelf life on Earth.

Stars, planets and the molecules that make them are only about five percent of the total mass in the universe — the rest is either dark matter or dark energy, but no one has ever seen this material or been able to study it. What’s more, the Big Bang theory holds that the universe should be made of equal parts matter and antimatter, but scientists have never detected naturally occurring antimatter. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer – 02 (AMS-02), an instrument mounted on the outside of the International Space Station, looks for evidence of these mysterious substances, along with very high-energy radiation coming from distant stars that could harm crew members traveling to Mars. Currently, one of the pumps in the thermal control system in this important scientific instrument is failing, so we are conducting a series of spacewalks to repair this instrument and keep it functioning.

As the body’s most important organ, the brain needs a strong and reliable blood supply, so the brain is capable of self-regulating blood flow even when the heart and blood vessels cannot maintain an ideal blood pressure. The Human Cerebral Autoregulation during Long-duration Spaceflight (Cerebral Autoregulation) investigation tests whether this self-regulation improves in the micro-gravity environment of space. Non-invasive tests measure blood flow in the brain before, during, and after a long-duration.

This is only a small fraction of the research being conducted on the International Space Station. I encourage you to download the Space Station Research Explorer (SSRX) app, where you can peruse all of the investigations. This info is also available on the NASA website, Space Station Research Experiments.

What does take-off feel like?

Launch: it felt like the simulator (we’ve gone through all these flight phases so many times in training, doing all the actions, pressing all the buttons, doing all the communications) – I had to remind myself that it was the real thing, but then the rocket would shift or groan a little and that would remind me that it was real. I could see stage separations out the window – shroud coming off (before that the shroud covers the window, so there is no view). In orbit, I could see each thruster firing. Immediately after KO (separation of the 3rd stage – entering orbit and weightlessness), I felt like hanging upside down (that feeling persisted and didn’t start lessening until after a week or more – especially at night in my CQ I felt like a bat in the beginning, always hanging upside down!) At that moment of course everything else was floating too – so pieces of dust or small things that had settled to the “floor” before, everything was floating.

GSAL Junior School / Dr Jessica Meir / NASA

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