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Maine Woman Among Eight New NASA Astronauts
06/17/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Today, NASA announced eight new astronaut candidates - four of them women, including one originally from Caribou, Maine. Jessica Meir, currently a researcher and assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, was selected from a pool of more than 6,000 applicants. Patty Wight reports.

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When Caribou High School social studies teacher Ken Atcheson opened his email inbox on Monday, he got news few of us could ever expect to receive: There was a message from his former student and advisee, Jessica Meir (left). She told him she was selected by NASA to become an astronaut.

"She said, 'Mr. Atcheson, dreams really do come true,'" he says.

Atcheson says if anyone could achieve this, it's Meir. She's smart - was valedictorian of her high school class, graduated from Brown University, has an advanced degree from the International Space University and earned her doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanograpy.

"I think she's determined, I think she's logical," - a leader, says Atcheson, as well as a team player, "a person with a gentle soul, a wonderful mind."

Given Meir's determination, says Atcheson, the news is not surprising. As for Jessica herself? It's all still sinking in. "It definitely does seem surreal, particularly, I think, since we weren't supposed to tell anybody until now," she says.

Meir had to sit on the news for 10 agonizing days. It's the culmination of a dream she's had ever since she was about five years old.

"I distinctly remember drawing a picture - I think in first grade, when we were supposed to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I distinctly remember drawing an astronaut then," she says.

Meir says she's always been interested in exploration, and that she's happiest when both mentally and physically challenged.

That's evident from her resume. She worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston doing human physiology experiments, and currently works as comparitive physiologist, studying animals that live in extreme environments. Oh - and she also has her private pilot's license.

Becoming an astronaut, Meir says, provides the ultimate environment for challenge, especially when you consider NASA's goals from Administrator Charles Bolden. "We are laying the groundwork for a mission to an asteroid in the 2020s, and human missions to Mars in the 2030s."

You heard that right. Meir could be on the first human mission to an asteroid and to Mars. She was chosen from an initial group of 6,300 applicants. That number was whittled down to 120, and after interviews and medical examinations, the number shrunk to 49.

The candidates then underwent a vast array of evaluations and tests, says NASA's director of Flight Crew Operations, Janet Kavandi: language aptitude; mechanical skills; psychological interviews.

"And after underoing all that grueling process, we came out with the eight most qualified people that we feel have the best chance of passing all the rigorous requirements of becoming an astronaut," Kavandi says.

As one of four women in an eight-member class, Meir's group represents the highest percentage of women ever in a NASA training class.

"I'm very involved in public outreach and scientific outreach and education," Meir says. "And I'm very, very thrilled to have another avenue in which to really stimulate the next generation of scientists and explorers, and particularly women."

Meir begins training in August at the Johnson Space Center. She says she's excited and a little nervous, but mostly thrilled to have achieved her dream with the support of family, friends, and mentors.

Her former teacher, Ken Atcheson, says Caribou High School is abuzz with the news. "You know, there's only been two astronauts in the state of Maine, and we have one," he says. "Dear Caribou High School, and not charter school, not a private school, but dear old Caribou High School in Caribou Maine. And I'm darned proud."

Atcheson says when the day comes that Meir finally shuttles into space, there are going to be a lot of people in northern Maine looking up and smiling proudly.

Photo: Courtesy NASA


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