NASA astronaut and Maine native Jessica Meir joined us from aboard the International Space Station. She spoke with us about her historic spacewalk, what it's like to be weightless and the future of space exploration.
On what it was like to be part of the first all-female spacewalk
“It was simply an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. For me, coming up here, it just was the most amazing experience of my life, coming to the International Space Station, something that I had dreamed about since I was a kid ... And let me tell you, I thought it would be amazing. I knew it would be amazing. It is even far, far, far more incredible and impressive than I ever imagined. And that's saying a lot. Going for a spacewalk was even taking it a step further. When you come out of that hatch, and you look down and all you see are your boots and the earth below you in all of its beauty, it is really awe-inspiring and humbling experience, and it was just something that I really, really never forget.
"People have very different emotions when they come out for the first time, so I didn't know what to expect. I didn't have that fear of falling, which some a few people have said. I wasn't scared. I actually just felt incredibly inspired and looking back at the beauty of the earth. Just incredibly fortunate to have that opportunity.”
On achieving her childhood dream
“It certainly was my dream the entire way, but I think I also always knew that there was such a small chance of it happening that I didn't think that it that it necessarily would. And I think that's true for all of us that are fortunate enough to end up in this position. We know that there are so many other people that are equally as qualified [and] would make great astronauts. But unfortunately, you know, there just aren't enough spots for everybody and there's a lot of luck involved. So all of us recognize that.”
On the current mission to repair and improve the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is used to detect evidence of dark matter
“The AMS, is a very, very cool instrument — the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, as you mentioned — and it is probably understanding everything about it is a little bit beyond my capacity as a physiologist, not a physicist. But it is amazing.
"So, it is collecting all of this high-energy radiation that is coming from everywhere around it. And it's looking at these high energy particles, looking for evidence, as you mentioned, of dark matter, of antimatter. So, it already is telling us a lot about that environment, about all of those particles, about things like the origins of the universe. I think it's already sparked, spawned maybe, thousands of scientific publications already, so really cutting edge, astrophysics-type stuff.
"So this this spectrometer, though, unfortunately, it's mounted on the outside of the space station, so it actually doesn't have any interface with us as crew members. It is just out there collecting that radiation, collecting those high energy particles, doing its job. It was never designed to be serviced by spacewalks. We weren't supposed to have to do anything to it. But unfortunately, one of the pumps in the thermal control system has failed. And so, in order to maintain this instrument and to have it keep collecting its valuable scientific data, we have to do a series of spacewalks, which are coming right around the corner to go out and fix it."
On women in space exploration, science and technology
“I [was] treated the same as our male colleagues. Interestingly, our class was the first time that we had 50% female and 50% males. So we really already felt equal. We were held to the same standard. We received the same training. So for us going out of the door that day to do that spacewalk, it was really just doing our job, doing what we were trained to do at the same time.
"It is not lost on us that it is a special event. It is a historical event. And for me, I think it's just really inspiring to see that it's just becoming a regular event. It just makes sense. We've actually had a continuous female presence on the space station now for quite a while. And that just reflects how far we've come in society.
"We have more women in all of the STEM fields science, technology, engineering, math. So it just makes sense that we're starting to see equal representation on all fronts. And I think that's very exciting and hopefully inspiring for everybody that hopes to follow."
On the future of space exploration
“Well, right now, I think it's an amazing accomplishment that we've had this continuous presence on the International Space Station for almost 20 years. If you think about that, kids these days ... have never been alive when we didn't have a continuous human presence up here. So I think we are doing the right thing by maintaining our presence in space.
"We are also doing the right thing by maintaining our international partnerships and realizing that things are done better when we have a diverse and international team. We're up here every day working with our Russian counterparts. We have an Italian crew member up here from the European Space Agency. We often have Japanese and Canadian astronauts in. That really shows how well you can do a job when you bring all of these teams together. So I think, personally, we need to continue with that trajectory and we are for our future planning.
"The next thing you need, when you're thinking about the future of spaceflight, is what's that next step? What are what are we going to do after this? We want to continue to progress and advance. And our administration has announced that we will be going back to the moon on our journey to Mars. That's exactly what we should be doing, keeping that vision [and] moving forward.
"I also am very excited and encouraged by the fact that we are continuing these partnerships and expanding to include commercial companies. These partnerships that we have with companies like Space X, like Boeing, Northrop Grumman for resupply vehicles, are all only making us stronger because we're bringing different pieces of technology and expertise. And I think we've realized now, as a government, no one government can really do this alone with the scale of what we're trying to accomplish in space. But by combining all of these entities together, we can get the job done.”
This segment aired on November 1, 2019.