Life on the International Space Station

01 October 2019

Interview with 

Jessica Meir, NASA

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Astronaut and physiologist Jessica Meir

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On 25th September, Jessica Meir blasted into space and she’s now in orbit 400 kilometres above us, and travelling about 27,000 kilometres per hour. So why’s she up there…?

Jessica - 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 hard 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 a 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 - and possibly in need of new eyes - but other than that, it's going to be fine!

Jessica - [Laughs] - 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 burn differently in space. As you can imagine, if we can eliminate any of these gravity driven effects that we would have here on earth constantly when we're doing any experiment, we might expose a whole new world of other factors that might otherwise be masked. So everything from human physiology to combustion experiments, to protein crystal growth, we can 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 in development in clinical trials for Duchenne's 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 and 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 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. Any time 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 in extreme environments like the Antarctic or with these bar-headed geese helped them see that perhaps my background - my diversity as a human - would be pretty useful in the space environment as well.

Chris - And given that you've alluded to the fact that we are aware of all these health impacts of periods in space, are you concerned about that?

Jessica - Personally no... I... It is really just part of the job. You know I think the way that I've approached my research in the past, as well, without risk you truly don't have a reward. And I know safety is always the number one concern. So the protocols that we have in place at NASA and even the health and medical requirements are really designed to make sure that we stay safe that we still maintain our health and come back as healthy individuals with with a lot more lifetime to live. So no, I don't really think about that part.

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

Jessica -  Yes, so 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 programme. 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 "Runglish" that really gets used most of the time. For over the past year and a half I've been over here off and on in Star City, the cosmonaut training centre 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 learn how to be a co-pilot in Russian! It has been an absolutely incredible experience.

Chris - And 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 - [Laughs] - Not without looking that up... I can say [speaks in Russian]... So I basically said "be happy and until the space station!"

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