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Launching new careers

Former USAP participants land spots on latest astronaut class

Antarctica is a huge continent — but it’s a relatively small world when it comes to those who have lived and worked on that frozen land.

Yet Christina Hammock and Jessica Meir never met. That’s not entirely surprising. Hammock worked mainly on the science support side of the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP), helping to maintain a suite of scientific instruments at South Pole and Palmer stations. Most of Meir’s time on the Ice involved studying the diving physiology of emperor penguins near McMurdo Station at a site on the sea ice known as Penguin Ranch.

But they’ll get a chance to compare notes on their Antarctic experiences later this summer in Houston. Both were among the eight candidates selected to join the NASA astronaut corps last month.

“I think it’s awesome,” Hammock said of the inclusion of two USAP participants in the 21st astronaut class. Only 338 people have been selected since 1959, when NASA picked seven military pilots as the first U.S. astronauts.

“The USAP was an amazing program for me. It gave me a lot of opportunities,” Hammock said during a telephone interview from American Samoa, where she is the station chief for a NOAA atmospheric observatory that is part of the Earth System Research Laboratory’s Global Monitoring Division (GMD).

“I think [Antarctica is] a great analog for the space program and for the whole concept of exploring the frontiers through science. It definitely gave me the confidence that I needed to move forward in my other jobs, and also to do the application [to NASA]. I feel like I owe so much to the USAP.”

Hammock first worked at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the 2004-05 summer and then wintered over at the research facility in 2005. She was the cryogenics technician, a position that oversees the liquid helium supply that helps cool super-sensitive sensors on telescopes used to explore the universe from the bottom of the world.

She was the first woman to hold that job, as well as the first woman at Palmer Station in 2006-07 to work as a research associate, an assignment that involves overseeing a variety of scientific experiments at the small marine research base.

An electric engineer with graduate degrees from North Carolina State University, Hammock has also worked at the top of the world, supporting research in Greenland and later serving as NOAA station chief for a GMD observatory in Barrow, Alaska. That was also around the time that she applied to NASA.

“I wanted to be an astronaut my whole life,” said the 34-year-old. “I’ve always been drawn to science — any kind of science on the frontier has always fascinated me, and that’s where I wanted to be.”

The posters on her wall as a kid were of two things — Antarctica and outer space. “I made a point of following those two things throughout my career,” Hammock said.

She’s already had an opportunity to work with the U.S. space agency at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab back in 2007-10 on several projects, including NASA’s Juno mission. Juno launched a spacecraft to Jupiter in August 2011 to learn about the origin and evolution of the solar system’s largest planet. Hammock also did a stint at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from 2001-04 working on earth-orbiting telescopes.

“I’ve been really lucky that some of the things I’ve worked on have launched into space,” she said. 

Meir, 35, had similar dreams of far away places since she was at least five years old.

“I think one of the things is just the feeling of wanting to be in space and looking back at Earth and seeing our whole planet and everything that you’ve ever known beneath you in its entirety like that,” she said from Boston, where she is currently an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital. 

That childhood wish first sent her to NASA as early as an undergraduate at Brown University when she participated in a six-week program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida called the Space and Life Sciences Training Program.

During her senior year at Brown, she and a few other students submitted a proposal for NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities program. The team’s experiment was selected to fly on NASA’s KC-135 aircraft, which creates brief periods of microgravity, or weightlessness, by flying in a parabolic pattern.

Her career orbit remained not far from NASA in the ensuing years.

After getting a Master of Space Studies degree from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France, she spent three years at Johnson Space Center in Houston where she worked for Lockheed Martin supporting NASA’s Human Research Facility. Experiments involved physiological studies on how the human body responded to life in space, from muscle atrophy to microgravity effects on the cardiovascular system.

“That was a really interesting time, because we weren’t doing the same thing every day,” Meir said.

During that period Meir also became an aquanaut, spending five days in Aquarius, an undersea research laboratory as part of the joint NASA-NOAA NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) 4 Expedition.

“That reinvigorated my interest in marine biology,” said Meir, who learned to scuba dive while an undergraduate at Brown. “I became literally immersed in the marine environment.”

That led her across the country to the University of California-San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography where she worked under Paul Ponganis and Gerald “Jerry” Kooyman, two of the world’s leading experts on emperor penguin physiology.

“I’ve been very lucky to have these amazing mentors in my life, and Paul Ponganis and Jerry Kooyman — two legends of the Ice — really played that role for me. They’re not just top-notch scientists but amazing people,” Meir said.

She made four visits to the Ice between 2004 and 2008, focusing on blood oxygen depletion in diving emperor penguins. Her research included similar work on elephant seals in California. Emperor penguins are able to dive almost 30 minutes at a time without surfacing, while elephant seals can hold their breath for about two hours.

“We started looking at those animals because they’re most likely to have the most extreme physiological responses and adaptations, because they really are the extreme of the extremes of the diving world,” Meir said.

She also returned to the Ice in 2009 on a 10-day trip as part of a dive team with the Smithsonian Institution to evaluate and test scuba regulators and other diving equipment for the under-ice diving environment. 

Post-doctoral work sent her north to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and to yet another extreme, studying bar-headed geese, which are capable of flying at high altitudes while migrating over the Himalayas. Meir and her team wanted to learn how the waterfowl maintained flight in such an oxygen-starved environment.

Those experiments required Meir to be more than just a scientist. She would need the cooperation of a wild animal that she couldn’t follow across the world’s highest mountain range. Instead, the controlled experiment would require a wind tunnel and the need to instrument a cooperative subject to measure its physiological responses.

Meir took advantage of an evolutionary quirk in which waterfowl like the bar-headed goose imprint on the first thing they see.  “They imprinted on me. That was one of the coolest parts of the project — becoming mother goose,” she said.

Now the scientist who has spent much of her career studying biology in extreme environments hopes to go to the edge of human endurance herself — outer space.

“When I’m the most stimulated and personally fulfilled is when I’m in an environment with both this mental and physical challenge,” she said. “I can’t imagine a career that would encapsulate that better than being an astronaut. That’s overwhelmingly attractive to me.”

Hammock expressed a similar sentiment. Many of her assignments have included long months of isolation in both Greenland and Antarctica. Those experiences encouraged her to apply to the astronaut program.

“I was sure I could thrive in situations with few people and in isolation. I mainly learned that in Greenland. We had only five people for three months [at Summit Station],” she explained.

Both women and the rest of their class have about two years of training in front of them before they become flight eligible, which will require yet more work before they can launch into outer space. Where will they go? The International Space Station? An asteroid? Mars?

“I’m really excited about the potential to contribute to research on the space station,” Hammock said.

Added Meir, “I’m really just incredibly excited to play a role in NASA’s human space flight program.”

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs