After 7 Months In Space, Meir Will Return To A Very Different World NPR's David Greene connects with American astronaut Jessica Meir at the International Space Station, as she observes the COVID-19 outbreak from the ultimate quarantine.

After 7 Months In Space, Meir Will Return To A Very Different World

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If you think you are a little isolated at home, picture the ultimate quarantine - Jessica Meir is living it. She is an American astronaut and is in the International Space Station, circling the globe as the pandemic upends the lives of everyone she knows and loves on the ground. Tomorrow, after seven months in flight, she returns to Earth. But she will be landing in a very different world than the one she left.

David spoke with Meir as she orbited 250 miles or so overhead. And as you might expect, there are some formalities when you have NASA setting up a call for you from Earth.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Please stand by for a voice check from NPR.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Station, this is NPR. How do you hear me?

JESSICA MEIR: I have you loud and clear, NPR. How do you hear me?

GREENE: Hear you loud and clear, Jessica. Thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk to us from up there.

MEIR: No problem. It's wonderful to hear a familiar voice. Yours is one that I listen to often, even up here on the International Space Station.

GREENE: Oh, wow. Well, we all appreciate that. Can you tell me what you're seeing right now - which part of Earth? What are you passing, and what does it look like?

MEIR: I believe we actually are just passing by the southeastern corner of Australia, then we'll be over ocean for a while and we'll be coming up over the Pacific Northwest, over Canada and coming back down over my home state of Maine.

GREENE: And as you have had the chance to see the planet from up there, including something like your home, what are you thinking about in this moment and from that vantage point?

MEIR: We are thinking about so much all the time. I mean, in general for me, every time I go into the Cupola, which is really our biggest area of windows, it is difficult to believe that it's really happening that I'm up here sometimes still. You look down, and you're floating all the time, 24 hours a day. And you're looking down at the Earth. All the places you've ever been and all the people you've known - everything's down there together. And it is just surreal and so incredibly beautiful.

Right now we have a lot of other thoughts going through our minds since we're actually getting ready to come home. And we are packing up, and we will be home on Friday after seven months. Today's actually my 203rd day in space, so it's a little bit surreal to think that we're going back, especially given the situation that's been unfolding on the ground. It looks like we are going back to a completely different planet.

GREENE: Who have you been thinking about and staying in touch with to try and stay connected to what's been happening here?

MEIR: We actually have regular conferences once a week - video conferences, just like a Skype or a FaceTime call. I've been speaking to a lot of family and friends. One of the reasons is not even just for me - I just want to be able to share this with everybody possible. And a lot of people think it's pretty cool to get a call from space, so that's something that I enjoy doing a lot.

GREENE: Is everyone in your family, your friends doing OK?

MEIR: Yes. Thank you very much for asking. Everybody is doing well. And I know this is really an incredibly difficult time for everybody, and it's why it's so difficult to believe. You know, I know other people have experienced major personal or also even more internationally type incidents while they've been in space removed from it. But this one is just something that is affecting the entire planet. There really isn't anybody that's not affected by this except for us for now. And so that has just been very odd and surreal for us to experience.

GREENE: Yeah. I wonder about the emotion and whether it's even lonelier to be away from people and away from the planet at a moment like this.

MEIR: Yeah, it certainly does feel like quite a contradiction because when I look out the window, the Earth is equally as stunning as it looked several months ago, before all of this happened. So it is hard for us to process, really, how much everything has changed.

GREENE: Jessica, in normal times, if we can even call them that, what would you be doing as soon as you landed back on Earth? And what would you be looking forward to most?

MEIR: Yeah, this situation has dramatically affected our plans. NASA has done an incredible job. Our support people on the ground have been working very hard to figure out even how to come pick us up. We launched in the Soyuz spacecraft from Baikonur in Kazakhstan, and we land in Kazakhstan as well. So normally what happens is a NASA aircraft comes over to pick us up and gets us back to Houston within 24 hours. But of course, even getting that NASA aircraft over there, with all the international stops involved, has been quite an effort. It's going to be kind of like planes, trains and automobiles scenario, where I think we're going to even end up riding in an ambulance for several hours across the Kazakh Steppe in order to get to our airplane. So it'll be a little bit different than normal.

Once we get home, normally we have, you know, a little bit of a quarantine period, which is - has been a little bit soft in the past in terms of we can still kind of go about our daily routine. But because one of the hallmarks of spaceflight, physiologically, is actually a dysregulation (ph) of our immune system, we actually can come back potentially a bit immunocompromised. So of course, that makes everybody at NASA concerned, and they want to make sure that they keep us safe and healthy. So we'll have a more strict quarantine this time, where we'll be actually staying and living at NASA for at least a week after we land with very limited access to make sure that we remain healthy as well.

GREENE: Oh, wow. So you have to go from being in space for more than 200 days to actually coming to Earth and continuing to basically have to quarantine yourself.

MEIR: Yeah, that is the irony. I mean, we're going to be going for seven months of isolation for me, nine months for my crewmate Drew Morgan - to more isolation on the ground. And not even just that first week - it sounds like it's going to be a lot of isolation for the foreseeable future, as well. And I think it's actually going to feel more confined and more isolating to do that on Earth than it is up here because that's something that we expect and train for. But on the ground, when you're not used to expecting that and when, you know, your daily life consists of going out and doing all these things, I think it's going to feel a whole lot more isolating down there than up here.

GREENE: What do you miss most about life on Earth?

MEIR: Actually, I haven't really missed anything. I think, for me, you know, this is my first spaceflight, something I've been thinking about literally my entire life - since I was 5 years old. And every day, we are doing something so exciting. We have this incredible view of the Earth. We're doing incredible science experiments. We're sometimes going out the door to do a spacewalk. And all of these experiences have been so varied and new that I think this - completely in this new alien environment, that it doesn't really make me miss anything at home.

But of course, elements of nature are the one thing that I think will feel even more amazing once I come back. I love being outside and just feeling the fresh air, the feeling of the warmth of the sunlight on your skin. The smell of the trees in the forest - that is something that I am really looking forward to.

GREENE: Thank you so much Jessica. Be safe.

MEIR: Thank you. It was wonderful speaking to you today. Take care, and stay healthy down there. We're all thinking of you.


INSKEEP: David Greene talking with American astronaut Jessica Meir who's preparing to return to Earth tomorrow after seven months in space.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you to all participants (inaudible) the station. We are now resuming operational audio communications.

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