Maine astronaut Jessica Meir gets a big hug after arriving on board the International Space Station on Wednesday. (Image from NASA video)

Astronaut Jessica Meir, a 41-year-old flight engineer who grew up in Caribou, blasted off Wednesday morning on her first mission in space. Nearly six hours later, the spacecraft docked successfully at the International Space Station as it passed over Chile. 

After pressurizing the vestibule and checking for leaks, a process that took more than two hours, Meir and two fellow crew members opened the hatch and entered the space station. Greeted with hugs from the six crew members already there, Meir laughed and wiped away tears of joy. 

Jessica Meir. (Josh Valcarcel/NASA)

“We feel great,” Meir told the ground crew via NASA video feed. “It’s going to be an amazing six months.” 

Meir is the first Maine woman to travel into space, fulfilling a dream she’s had since she was a small child in Aroostook County. She will be on the space station through March, orbiting 260 miles above Earth, and many proud Mainers will be tracking her progress. 

“She’s an inspiration to us all,” said Kenneth Atcheson, Meir’s former high school teacher, who watched Wednesday’s events with giddy wonder. 

The launch, docking and hatch opening were broadcast live on NASA TV and through the agency’s website. Coverage started at 9 a.m. and continued throughout the day, with repeated showings of the launch, docking and information about the crew and space program. 

A Soyuz rocket carrying Meir and her fellow crew members aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft roared into the sky at 9:57 a.m. EDT from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

Meir arrived at the space station’s Zvezda service module at 3:42 p.m. – 3 minutes ahead of schedule – with Oleg Skripochka of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Hazzaa Ali Almansoori from the United Arab Emirates. 

When the hatch finally opened at 6:13 p.m. – about a half-hour later than expected – the three crew members floated through the round opening into the space station. Now dressed in casual blue uniforms, they were greeted by station commander Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, NASA astronauts Christina Koch, Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan, Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov. 

In the video feed, Meir thanked everyone for their support and said seeing familiar faces on the space station made her feel right at home. 

“You just sort of feel like you’re hanging from the ceiling,” Meir said of being weightless in space, something she had trained for but was surprised to experience in real life. 

Looking back at Earth from the spacecraft, Meir said, she was captivated by beautiful cloud formations and the red reflection of the sunrise on a body of water. 

“That was a pretty spectacular view,” she said. 

The nine-member crew is the largest on the space station in four years, matching staffing for a brief period in 2015. Meir is the 65th woman and the 238th person to board the space station. 

In the hours leading up to launch, the NASA video feed showed Meir leaving the cosmonaut hotel with the other crew members, blowing kisses to well-wishers, getting on a large purple bus strewn with stars and waving excitedly through the window as the vehicle departed. 

Once at the Cosmodrome, Meir was seen putting on her white space suit and checking to make sure it could be pressurized. In a final appearance with family members and friends, Meir grinned as a NASA official told the crew, “Have a great time. Do a little work, but have a great time. 

After liftoff, flight commander Skripochka reported exceeding 1,100 mph as the spacecraft hurtled through Earth’s atmosphere. “We are doing great,” he said through an interpreter. By 10:08 a.m., the spacecraft was orbiting Earth, on its way to the space station. 

After docking, team members on the ground congratulated the crew, who weren’t visible on the video feed. 

“Thank you very much,” Meir said briefly. 

“We’re feeling great,” Skripochka said through an interpreter. “We are ready to continue.” 

Excitement was running high Wednesday morning in Caribou, where the high school is on a two-week break for the potato harvest, but middle school students gathered in the cafeteria to watch the liftoff. 

From left, United Arab Emirates astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, U.S. astronaut Jessica Meir, members of the main crew to the International Space Station, wave to their relatives walking to a bus prior to the launch of Soyuz-FG rocket at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday. (Associated Press/Dmitri Lovetsky)

“I think the kids understood what a great accomplishment this was for Jessica and for the community,” said Travis Barnes, principal of Caribou High School. 

Barnes noted that Meir, a member of the high school’s class of 1995, wrote in her yearbook that it was her goal “to go for a space walk.” On Oct. 29, Meir is scheduled to speak live from the space station with Caribou students in grades 6 to 12 who will be gathered in the high school auditorium. 

“A lot of people have made greatness for themselves, but what I admire most about Jessica is she never forgot where she comes from,” Barnes said. “For us, this is an opportunity to drive home the idea that you can work toward and accomplish your dreams.” 

Meir is the third person from Maine to go on a space flight. York native Chris Cassidy went to the space station in 2009 and 2013 and later served as chief astronaut, and Charles Hobaugh, who was born in Bar Harbor, made three space flights between 2001 and 2009. 

Meir was chosen for the highly selective astronaut training program in 2013 and has been training intensely for the past six years, learning skills that range from fixing a toilet in space to navigating a 400-pound space suit during a spacewalk. She spent much of the past year and a half in Russia training for her mission. 

The mission is the third spaceflight for Skripochka and the first for both Meir and Almansoori, who is on an nine-day mission under a contract between the UAE and Roscosmos, AP reported. 

Among the nine crew members that were on the space station after Meir arrived, Hague and Ovchinin are scheduled to wrap up a mission of more than 200 days on Oct. 3 and return to Earth with Almansoori. Meir and Skripochka are expected to stay for six months. 

While on the space station, Meir will work on scientific experiments ranging from studying gravity’s effects on the human body to protein crystal growth to radiation’s effects on humans. The crew also does maintenance work, which may give Meir an opportunity go on a spacewalk. 

“I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to go out the hatch,” Meir said in a recent interview. “That’s when you really feel like an astronaut.” 

Perhaps no one but Meir is more pleased that she is realizing her dream than Atcheson, her high school history teacher and class adviser. 

Now retired, Atcheson watched Wednesday’s events on a big-screen television in his living room in Presque Isle, all while wearing his maroon faculty sweater from Caribou High School. 

Atcheson got to know Meir well as a student, when she often asked him how she could improve her already impressive schoolwork, and when he reviewed the valedictory speech she delivered at graduation. 

“I’ve been riding on Cloud Nine all day long,” Atcheson said in a phone interview. “I’m happy, but I’m also worried beyond words. No matter how old students get, they’re still the kids who had to ask to go to the bathroom. 

“Now, she’s wearing an astronaut’s uniform and she’s taking off in a rocket. I’m glad I got to see it,” Atcheson said, noting with emotion that he is a recent cancer survivor. 

Atcheson described Meir as a smart, humble and genuine person who also excelled as a high school athlete and musician. Meir has stayed in touch with many friends and teachers in Caribou, he said, returning often through the years for visits and special honors. His voice brimmed with pride as he pointed out that Meir is a gifted scientist who has a master’s degree in space studies and a doctorate in marine biology. 

“She shows that anyone who has a dream and works hard can accomplish anything,” Atcheson said. “She can inspire the whole state of Maine, especially young women, to know there are no limits to what they can do, not even the sky.” 

Atcheson plans to attend Meir’s live chat with Caribou students on Oct. 29, and he’ll be monitoring her progress throughout the coming months. On clear nights, when the sky is dark and the stars are bright, he’ll head out to his backyard, hoping to catch a glimmer of the space station passing overhead. 

“And I’ll say, ‘There goes little Jessica Meir, an astronaut from Caribou, Maine.’” 

United Arab Emirates astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri, center, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka, bottom, and U.S. astronaut Jessica Meir, members of the main crew to the International Space Station, board the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft for the launch at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Wednesday. (Maxim Shipenkov/Pool Photo via AP)

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