June 18, 2013

Lifelong dream fulfilled: Mainer to become astronaut

Jessica Meir of Caribou, whose yearbook goal was to walk in space, is one of eight new candidates chosen by NASA.

By Dennis Hoey dhoey@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A woman from Maine has been chosen from thousands of applicants to train as an astronaut for NASA, a selection that could one day take her to Mars.

Jessica U. Meir, a 1995 graduate of Caribou High School who now works in Boston, could be among the leaders of a manned mission to an asteroid in the 2020s and to Mars in the following decade, according to a statement issued by NASA.

Meir, 35, is among eight astronaut trainees who were introduced Monday by NASA to be in its first training class in four years. The group, selected from a pool of more than 6,000 applicants after an 18-month search, includes four women. Their training will begin in August at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

If she successfully completes her two years of intense training, Meir could join Chris Cassidy, the only other active astronaut from Maine. Cassidy, who is now aboard the International Space Station, grew up in York.

Meir is a graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island and is now an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School in Boston. She could not be reached for comment Monday.

But in an interview on YouTube — in a forum called NASA Google+ Hangout — she says flying in space "has been my dream since I was 5 years old."

Meir says she is looking forward to being trained to fly a jet and immersing herself in Russian culture and society. She says she holds a private pilot's license.

Meir could be one of the first astronauts to fly to the International Space Station aboard commercial spacecraft launched from the United States. Russia ferries the astronauts now.

During the hour-long YouTube segment, Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochao introduces each of the astronaut candidates. Five are from the military and three, including Meir, are civilians.

Ochao says Meir was born and raised in Caribou, Maine, and that Meir has done extensive field work at Penguin Ranch in Antarctica, where she studied penguin behavior. Meir is also a scuba diver and an airplane pilot.

She has an advanced degree from the International Space University, and earned her doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

NASA said the group of eight trainees, with four women, has the highest percentage of female astronaut candidates ever selected for a class.

Kenneth Atcheson II of Presque Isle, who was Meir's high school class adviser and social studies teacher, said he is not surprised that Meir was chosen.

He said he has known her since she was a little girl. When she was in the first grade, she drew a picture of an astronaut. In her senior yearbook, she wrote that her life goal was "to walk in space," Atcheson said.

He said Meir was active in high school. She was a member of the French club, president of the Student Council, a varsity soccer player, a saxophone player in the school band, a member of the National Honor Society and valedictorian of her class.

"She was by far one of the finest young women I've known," he said.

Atcheson, who has taught at Caribou High School for 27 years, said he was giving an exam Monday when he got an email from Meir. It read, "Dreams really do come true."

Atcheson said he had to compose himself, for fear he might start crying in front of his students.

"All day long, all I could think of was my little Jessica could land someday on an asteroid or even Mars," Atcheson said.

There will be a heck of a party in Caribou if she ever goes on a space walk, Atcheson said.

"All of Aroostook County and Maine should go outside and look into the sky and say, 'Jessica, you can do it.' We'll just stand here on earth, spellbound," he said.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com

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