Q&A with NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, speaking at Space Week at Expo 2020 Dubai
NASA astronaut Jessica Meir made history in October 2019 when she participated in the first all-female spacewalk with fellow astronaut Christina Koch.
Meir is a marine biologist, and physiologist, was previously Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, following postdoctoral research in comparative physiology at the University of British Columbia. She has studied the diving physiology and behavior of emperor penguins in Antarctica, and the physiology of bar-headed geese, which are able to migrate over the Himalayas. In September 2002, Meir served as an aquanaut on the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 4 (NEEMO 4) crew.
In 2013, she was selected by NASA to Astronaut Group 21. In 2016, Meir participated in ESA CAVES, a training course in which international astronauts train in a space-analogue cave environment. Meir launched on September 25, 2019, to the ISS onboard Soyuz MS-15, where she served as a flight Engineer during Expedition 61 and 62, in which she logged 205 days in space during her first spaceflight.
On October 18, 2019, Meir and Christina Koch were the first women to participate in an all-female spacewalk. Meir was included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
More than two dozen countries at Expo 2020 have space as one of their major themes. How important are events such as Expo 2020 and Space Week in creating collaboration between nations and organisations?
I think events like Expo 2020 are a wonderful opportunity for all of these different countries to come together to discuss something in common, which is really something that brings back to all of humanity, from a global thinking perspective, and that is of course our combined, mutual interests in space.
Most of us are unaware of the role space technology plays in our lives, such as our ability to communicate using smartphones. How important is educating schoolchildren and young adults about space and what is the best way of doing this?
I think it’s absolutely crucial for us to make sure that we educate children and the general public about how present space is in our everyday lives — from the TV news stations that we watch to our telephone calls, all these different technologies which space exploration and science has enabled. It’s really a critical part of our job as astronauts to help communicate that message to show people how important it is not just from an exploration objective, but also for science and for all these other spin off technologies and benefits, that we get through all of the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and maths. We get all of these benefits when we invest in space.
You made history by being part of the first all-female spacewalk and still harbour dreams of being the first woman to walk on the Moon. Nora Al Matrooshi is the first woman from the UAE to train as an astronaut. Is the gender imbalance in the space sector changing?
Yes, here in the space sector, like we see in all of these other sectors, we have absolutely had some under-representation of women and other minorities, that is an absolute fact. But I think the nice thing now is how normal it does feel now the balance is being equalised. I know that for Christina Koch and myself, when we embarked on that first all-female spacewalk, for us it was just us doing our job that day because we had this opportunity, and we knew we were there on the space station with all of our colleagues — everybody was deeply trained and ready to do the job.
But I think the most important thing … was that this is really a triumph and a celebration for all of the generations of women and other minorities that came before us. They were the ones that were truly pushing the envelope and breaking those glass ceilings to allow us to be there doing that today. And so, I think that that’s something that we like to hold dear to us: that it’s really a moment of triumph and celebration for them, not a personal achievement for us.
Sonia Dixon, Kande Sill and Delroy Constantine-Simms