NASA astronaut Jessica Meir training for her mission to the International Space Station.Josh Valcarcel NASA John / PNG
Jessica Meir has always been interested in how Earth creatures respond to extreme environments, so it makes sense that she is heading to outer space, the most extreme environment of all.
The one-time UBC post-doctoral researcher will blast off Sept. 25 aboard a Russian Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft for a six-month stay on the International Space Station and to fulfil a childhood dream.
Ive wanted to be an astronaut since I was five, so it wont surprise anyone that Im going to space, said Meir, who is at the Star City cosmonaut training facility outside Moscow. I just never thought it would come true.
Aboard the ISS, Meir will be conducting a variety of experiments in human physiology using herself as the main research subject. She has long experience studying the physiology of animals at extreme depths and high altitudes.
At the University of B.C., Meir and her colleague Julia York played mother to baby bar-headed geese so they could teach them to fly in a wind tunnel.
The goal was to learn how the geese regulate their metabolism when they migrate in low-oxygen environments at altitudes reaching 8,500 metres, nearly the height of Mount Everest. That paper was published this week, 10 years after they started the project.
Once the goslings had imprinted on the researchers, they trained them to fly sometimes following Meir on her motor scooter then used the wind tunnel to simulate high-altitude conditions.
Jessica Meir training a bar-headed goose to fly alongside her on a motor scooter.Milsom Lab/UBC / PNG
That was the most challenging project Ive ever done and it took much longer than I thought, she said. Its funny that it is finally being published just as Im about to go into space.
Meir, commander Oleg Skripochka, and Hazzaa Ali Almansoori of the United Arab Emirates will take six hours to reach the ISS where they will join six crew members already aboard. Scheduled departures will bring the crew back down to its usual six members about a week later.
During the mission, the crew will tackle 250 experiments that would be impossible under the influence of Earths gravity on such things as human physiology, fuel efficiency, growing transplant tissues, exotic materials science pharmaceutical development, and practical experiments intended to extend the range of human space travel to Mars, such as a Zero-G Oven for baking on long space missions.
In a zero-gravity environment, it is possible to create crystals and other materials that have industrial and even medical application in drug development for Parkinsons, cancer and a whole variety of stubborn ills. A Japanese Space Agency study recently led to a drug for muscular dystrophy that is in trials.
Space may also be the perfect environment for growing delicate human organs for transplant that are difficult to create in Earths gravity because they require supporting structure, said Meir, who is an American.
The idea is that in zero gravity, you could grow organs without those support structures, she said. Maybe we could have something like a biological 3D printer to make organs in space for use on Earth.
Meir will monitor herself for changes in eye and retinal health as well as changes in cardiovascular tissue already observed in astronauts.
Thats a hot topic because the carotid arteries and some other blood vessels get thicker after six months in space, she said. They age by 20 years.
Meir and her crewmates have been training for the mission at Star City for most of the past 18 months and their official commissioning ceremony was held earlier this week at Red Square. They will spend the next few weeks in quarantine.
While she had obtained her pilots licence years ago while a biology undergrad, she was trained in Russia to help pilot Soyuz in Russian.
Its a lot more work to learn the co-pilot job, but its really worth it, she said.
Meir first applied to be an astronaut in 2008 while working at NASA but fell just short of selection. She applied again in 2012 after completing her PhD, while she was researching goose physiology at UBC. She later became at assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, before being selected as an astronaut.
The common theme that has driven me throughout my life is exploration and curiosity, she said. But what interested me the most with geese and with deepsea diving in my PhD is the physiology of organisms in extreme environments, which really ties in to our lives as astronauts.
Space is the most inhospitable environment imaginable for a human being, but its just another day at the office for Meir.
Working for NASA I was facilitating experiments to be conducted by astronauts, but this time I will be the one being poked and prodded in the name of science, she said. So, its really come full circle.
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