Later this month, when she launches off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, Jessica Meir will rapidly ascend further than any bird, past the Earth’s atmosphere, to the International Space Station. Among the ISS’s usual crew of engineers, she will be the rare physiologist, looking at how the body reacts to space travel.
Meir has always been interested in extreme environments, and how the planet’s hardiest animals cope with them. In the early 2000s, she coordinated experiments at the NASA Johnson Space Center on how human bones, muscles, and lungs react to the rigors of spaceflight. She earned her doctoral degree diving in Antarctic waters, studying emperor penguins and elephant seals as they did the same. And in the summer of 2010, a few years before she realized her lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut, she hand-raised a dozen bar-headed geese—the highest-flying birds in the world.
“It was even more ambitious than I realized,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about waterfowl. I hadn’t even worked with flying birds before, only with penguins.”
Twice a year, bar-headed geese migrate from their breeding grounds in China and Mongolia to their wintering sites in India—a 5,000-mile journey that happens to take them across the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range on Earth. Perhaps they first made that trek in deep prehistory, when the Himalayas were still young and low. As eons passed and mountains rose, the geese had to traverse ever-higher barriers. One early explorer, while camping at 15,000 feet, claimed to have heard “the distant honking of these birds flying miles above me unseen against the stars.” Another watched from the slopes of Everest as a flock of geese flew over the mountain’s 29,000-foot summit. These anecdotes were controversial, but scientists who fitted geese with GPS trackers showed that they do indeed reach altitudes of up to 24,000 feet.