Jessica Meir had been dreaming of flying into space since she was five years old. But what she did not know is that, while she was up there, a great pandemic would ravage her planet
Most of us spend our lives asking questions that many of us don’t know are answered. Thus, our existence is sustained based on beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us. But perhaps if we got a view from high above we could understand if only in a very general way, some of the great mysteries that have always plagued us.
This is known as the “Overview Effect“, which consists of seeing the reality of the Earth first hand from space. Unfortunately, not everyone can enjoy this experience, as it is reserved for astronauts only. Psychologists who have analyzed the effect on real people who one day took off from the earth’s surface comment that it is a kind of epiphany, a moment of deep mental clarity in which all doubts are cleared.
Something like this experienced Jessica Meir on her first mission to space, a 43-year-old American woman who has been observing from up there all these pandemic months. “I’d heard others say that it changes you as a person,” she said in an interview with ‘The Face’ magazine.
“It was pretty surreal. I felt like, how is this possible that I’m up here floating around, looking down at the entire planet? Other than thinking it was incredibly beautiful, I felt this profound sense of connection … it took a while to order my thoughts.”
“The craziest thing to wrap my head around was that every one of the 7.5bn people on Earth was being affected by Covid-19, which didn’t even exist when we’d left,” she says. “Then there were the three of us up in space, completely separate from it.” Meir returned to the Johnson Space Center in April 2020, right in the middle of the global quarantine. The most paradoxical thing is that, after having been up there separated from her own and isolated for months, she returned to Earth and found that everyone was confined.
“I was a little depressed if I’m honest.”
An enthusiastic heart
Meir wanted to be an astronaut since she was five years old. Now, thirty years later, who would tell her that her dream was destined to come true. Before leaving Earth’s atmosphere behind, she was struggling to finish her university degree on marine animals. Specifically, on the penguins. As she herself recounted in the interview, she spent almost a year in a “penguin ranch” located in Antarctica to understand how they could hold their breath for long periods of time.
But for her, the best adventure was the one that awaited her up there, on the International Space Station. “The thing that’s appealed to me, throughout my life and career, is being able to see and experience something that is wild and raw,” Meir explains. When she got up there, she saw the world spinning under her feet: the sands of the dunes of the Sahara, the greenery of the Amazon or the Mediterranean Sea stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to Turkey. “The view was incredible,” she corroborates. “but so was the psychological aspect – the realisation that I was separate from every place I’d ever been to, everything I’d ever seen, every other human, and every experience I’d ever had, says Meir. “I was just an observer, and that was a lot to process”.
What was your daily life like on the International Space Station?
Meir was in charge of making repairs to the facilities, which have become somewhat obsolete. She also spent two hours doing aerobic exercise on a machine specially designed for cycling or treadmill running in zero gravity: the ARED (“Advanced Resistive Exercise Device”) is a system that generates resistance to through vacuum tubes to be able to do weights in zero gravity conditions. If astronauts did not engage in regular physical exercise, they would risk losing a high density of bone mass, causing muscle atrophy.
Her free time was spent taking pictures of the Earth from up there or just going on a spacewalk. This was precisely what impressed her the most, not only her, but in general, all the astronauts who went through the same situation before. Before leaving Earth, most of her companions who had already been argued that it was very difficult for them to explain what it feels like to float in the middle of space.
“Coming out of the airlock, I looked down and all I could see were my boots, and then nothing,” Meir says. “I was like ‘holy crap, this is it, it’s actually happening. Seven hours and 17 minutes in the vacuum of space is a long time to feel like you’re falling. Luckily I didn’t get that particular sensation”, Meir added further. “I think that’s how you have to live your life – willing to take a risk and willing to fail, in order to accomplish something really great.”
What did you think when you heard the news that a pandemic had broken out on your home planet?
“I would have stayed up there, for sure,” she says. “The things I was looking forward to most, like hugging friends and going to restaurants, weren’t available to me.” This is how when she returned, she gave her plenty of time to think about how the experience of looking at everything from above had changed her.
“It’s still so difficult to describe what it feels like to see the entire Earth,” she acknowledges. “Down here it’s so easy for us to get wrapped up in the minutiae of what we’re doing; something that’s superficial and inconsequential. When you’re in space, you are literally seeing the bigger picture – how special, fragile and beautiful our world is – this blue ball in the blackness of space”, she alleges.
I wish that every human could experience that view, particularly our world leaders, to understand how important it is that we protect it