First all-female spacewalk

22 October 2019

Interview with 

Jessica Meir, NASA

ASTRONAUT

this is a picture of an astronaut doing a space walk

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Last week NASA made history with its first all-female space walk; two astronauts dropped feet-first out of the airlock to spend the day mending a failed power unit on the outside of the International Space Station. One of those astronauts was physiologist Jessica Meir. Chris Smith chatted with her last month when she was still at Star City, the cosmonaut training facility outside Moscow, just before she blasted off, destined for six months in space aboard the ISS…

Jessica - On the space station we are participating in a wide variety of experiments. So everything from how microgravity and the spaceflight environment affect the human body. There are some specific hot issues that we're looking at right now in terms of the health of astronauts’ eyes. We're seeing some vision changes in astronauts that are coming back that we need to make sure we have a good understanding for, when we start thinking about the future of space exploration. We have some evidence now that the arteries of astronauts are actually thickening in spaceflight. Even in a six month mission, we have about the equivalent of 20 to 30 years of aging here on the ground. So pretty significant increase and we need to understand more about that mechanism as well.

Chris - So what you're saying is you're going to come back looking 30 years older with the arterial tree of someone in their 70s, possibly in need of new eyes. But other than that, it’s going to be fine.

Jessica - Hopefully it won't be quite that extreme, but of course the benefit of researching these things is to make things better for the future, and those are just a few examples of those physiology studies, of course my interest really lies there, but we are doing things like combustion experiments, even flames spread differently in space. As you can imagine, if we can eliminate any of these gravity driven effects that we would have here on Earth, we might expose a whole new world of other factors that might otherwise be masked.

We can grow more pure and bigger protein crystals on the space station. So that has actually led to the development of drugs for things like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and more recently we are looking at Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The Japanese space agency even has a drug and development in clinical trials for Duchenne muscular dystrophy based on that space station protein crystal growth research. Some of the other work in the combustion facility will help us hopefully improve fuel economy processes here on Earth and also we'll look toward engines and fuel systems for future spacecraft.

And when we're on the space station we're also doing a lot of routine maintenance and repair. The space station's actually getting a little bit old now, it's about 20 years old. So as you can imagine, if a light bulb needs to be changed or we have to fix the toilet, we can't just call a plumber or an electrician. We have to do all that ourselves. So it's part of the routine operations that we're doing up there. We go for spacewalks as well. Anytime we need to upgrade a system, or if we need to conduct some kind of unanticipated repair that has to be done on the outside of the space station, we put the spacesuit on and have to go work out there for the day. So one of the things that I really like about the job as an astronaut is that it is very active and very diverse, doing something different every day.

Chris - Was this always an aspiration of yours? I'm very good at doing this on Earth but actually there are some questions I can answer even better in space.

Jessica - So I just applied to become an astronaut since it was a dream of mine, since I was five years old. And luckily I think some of my experiences working with the physiology of organisms and extreme environments, helped them see that perhaps my backgrounds would be pretty useful in these space environments as well.

Chris - And how’s your Russian? Because that was the thing that many people are quite surprised to learn that you have to become extremely good at Russian because, isn't a lot of the control materials all written in Russian.

Jessica - Yes. The International Space Station is not just American NASA astronauts. We are up there with the Russian cosmonauts, and then also the European, Japanese, and Canadian astronauts. Those are all the international partners for the space station program. There are two official languages on the space station and those are English and Russian. So everybody up there has to be competent in both languages. We like to describe it as a little bit of Ruglish that really gets used most of the time. For over the past year and a half I've been over here, off and on, Star City, the cosmonaut training center outside of Moscow, and I've been learning to be the co-pilot of the Soyuz spacecraft. That's what I'll be launching in, and all of that training is actually in Russian. Pretty interesting to learn how to not only be a co-pilot given my background, certainly not in that field, but to learn how to be a co-pilot in Russian. It has been an absolutely incredible experience.

Chris - Would you like to sign off for us now with a little bit of Russian, just to prove that you've really mastered it?

Jessica - Sure. I might need a second though, of thinking about what would be a good way.

Chris - Can you say live long and prosper?

Jessica - Not without looking that one up. I can say “Schastliv i do Stantsii”. So I basically said be happy and until the space station

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