NASA Astronaut Group 21: 8 Brave New Astronauts to Visit Asteroid — Then Mars


In October 2011, NASA began accepting applications for astronaut hires and after an extensive year-and-a half search, the NASA Astronaut Group 21 was formed from four women and four men in the second largest pool of applications NASA has ever had, comprising over 6,372 applicants (the largest was in 1978 just before the launch of the space shuttle program). Currently in the process of identifying possible near-Earth asteroids, NASA has gathered a team of academically and physically impressive people with the goal of visiting one in 2025. NASA Astronaut Group 21, who will follow a robotic precursor mission, will then be launched even farther afield in the following decade ... to Planet Mars (#mindboggling).

Before my dreams of becoming an astronaut were quelled with my not-so-20/20 vision and my impressive motion sickness, I spent many a day and night poring over the seemingly infinite documentation NASA provides on all things space related. The requirements for becoming a U.S. astronaut have really evolved since the early 60s. Those original seven pilots, whittled down from over 500 willing candidates, who inspired generations of mini aspiring star chasers were all-action heroes. No more than 5 feet 11 inches (because of limited cabin space), with a requirement of jet aircraft flight experience and engineering training, that magnificent seven endured hundreds of hours of intense physical and psychological screenings. Nowadays, the training is no less intense but the requirements have shifted. Applicants are invited on the basis of educational background alone. They are required to have a doctorate degree or equivalent experience in the natural sciences, followed by at least three years of related, progressively responsible experience or at least 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time in a jet aircraft.

As I scanned the list of newly appointed NASA astronauts set to explore deep space and potentially visit the Planet Mars (#marsexploration) I paused on one name in particular. 35-year-old Jessica Meir PhD was not a military flying machine (although she does now have extensive flight experience). With a NASA profile detailing her childhood dream of going into space, her pursuit of biological sciences at university, and her love of all sports and exercise, this is an astronaut after my own heart. Whipped up again by the prospect of that final frontier, thoughts of space sickness and leaving deliciously hydrated food back on earth evaporated in low-gravity air.

Dr. Meir, with her PhD investigating the diving physiology and behavior of emperor penguins in Antarctica and the physiology of bar-headed geese, which are able to migrate over the Himalayas, has worked for NASA before. In September 2002, Meir served as an aquanaut on the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 4 (NEEMO 4) crew, an underwater habitat used to study the effects of space travel on astronauts. Aquanauts can live underwater for up to three weeks during these study missions so that human physiology, bone atrophy, and general bodily functions can be monitored in this near-space environment.

Dr. Jessica Meir was a girl with a lifelong dream to go into space. And with a lot of hard work and no amount of stumbling blocks to steer her off course (she was a semi-finalist for selection for NASA’s Astronaut Group 20), she has finally made it.

And although my dreams have changed somewhat (a 10-block cab journey sends my head spinning), one girl's ambitions will be reached. She may even get that glimpse of planet earth in its entirety, from the surface of a distant asteroid — or perhaps from the Red Planet itself!