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Looking at the same sky

The Kennebec Journal

April 19

Maybe it’s the night sky, how it’s so clear you can see our solar system and beyond in all its celestial glory. Whatever it is, something’s drawing Mainers toward the stars.

Since Yuri Gagarin in 1961 became the first human to enter into orbit, fewer than 600 people have gone to space. Fewer still – just 224, plus those who have walked on the moon – have gone outside their space craft, floating into one of the most unforgiving environs imaginable.

Even on that short list, there are two Mainers. And if all goes well in the next year, we could add a third.

Jessica Meir, valedictorian of the Caribou High School class of 1995, will take part in the next mission to the International Space Station, NASA announced this week. Along with an astronaut from Russia and another from the United Arab Emirates, the 41-year-old Meir is scheduled to leave in September for what is initially a six-month mission.

Meir told the Press Herald she will “most likely” have the opportunity to conduct a spacewalk. There is a chance too she will do so with Christina Koch, an American astronaut now in the middle of a 328-day stay at the space station; it would be the first all-female spacewalk.

To get to the chance to make history, Meir has had to shine. She has earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s in space science and a doctorate in marine biology. Among other research, she has studied animal survival and behavior in extreme conditions – emperor penguins in the Antarctic, elephant seals in Northern California. To see how bar-headed geese survive in the high altitudes over the Himalayas, Meir trained them to fly in a wind tunnel.

She was chosen in 2013 for astronaut training, just one of eight selected out of 6,000 applicants for NASA’s 21st astronaut class. Now, after training — including learning the Russian she’ll need to communicate with fellow astronauts at the space station – Meir will get the opportunity to conduct research in the world’s most unique laboratory.

The space station was launched in 1998 and got its first crew in 2000. More than 230 people from 18 countries have since visited.

At the size of a football field, the space station is the largest structure ever put in space. It flies above Earth at around 248 miles and orbits the planet every 90 minutes, flying at 17,500 mph.

The space station is largely used to study how the extreme conditions of space affect humans as well as materials. Among other things, the results will guide efforts to propel humans farther into space, with the space station used as a base of operations for future far-flung missions.

Meir will join Charles O. Hobaugh, of Bar Harbor, and Christopher Cassidy, of York, as Mainers who have been to space. Both men also conducted spacewalks while at the space station, with Cassidy famously taking a “space selfie” while on a walk in 2013.

All three have reached the pinnacle of their profession. By this time next year, all three will have reached space.

And all three started their lives right here in Maine, looking up at the same night sky.

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