The Tech Arena 2024 took place in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 22 & 23. The event was hosted at the country's national football stadium, "Friends Arena," in the district of Solna, with an attendance of 7.500 guests worldwide. Among the special speaker invites was Jessica Meir, NASA Astronaut.

February 26, 2024 / 10 min. read

The Tech Arena 2024:

A Conversation with Jessica Meir,

NASA Astronaut

The Tech Arena 2024 took place in Stockholm, Sweden, on February 22 & 23.

The international event was hosted at the country's national football stadium, "Friends Arena," in the district of Solna, with an attendance of 7.500 guests worldwide. Among the special speaker invitations were NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir, an American-Swedish citizen who's also a marine biologist and physiologist.

Former US Vice-President and Nobel Prize Winner Al Gore and Apple Co-founder and Philanthropist Steve Wozniak also gave speeches throughout the two days. All on the same "Arena Stage".

Linda Nyberg, Chief Communication Officer at Novatron Fusion Group, moderated all three conversations.

The Tech Arena 2024. Seen from the stands on opening day, February 22. Photo: Keyvan Thomsen Bamdej

Full transcribed interview:

Linda Nyberg:

Welcome on stage, Jessica.

Jessica Meir:

One of the most interesting things about our office right now is that the first astronauts were all military test pilots.

That was the nature of the program back then. We had not been to space before. 

We're testing new vehicles, and we didn't even know what the space environment would do to the human body, for example. So, it made sense that they were all test pilots, but now we're much more diverse. 

As we know from the workforce, diversity is the key to being more successful, having a happier workforce, and solving any problem up there. 

So, now our office has scientists of all types. There are some other life scientists like me. There are medical doctors; there are engineers, there are physicists, and chemists. There are still some military test pilots, too. So it's kind of a really nice blend of diversity in the office. 

Linda Nyberg:

But you started your career in the ocean. Then you went to space because you have a Ph.D. You're a biologist, right? So, how come you went from the ocean to space? 

Jessica Meir:

I think, for me, it's kind of all about the extremes. I'm really fascinated by life and extreme environments, whether it's life in the deep oceans or animals that can dive to exceptional depths. That's what I studied for my PhD, or animals that can thrive at high altitudes, flying and migrating over the Himalayas, for example. That remarkable diversity in the animal kingdom fascinates me, and I am trying to understand that further. As an astronaut, I am in the ultimate of extreme environments as a human surviving in space.

Linda Nyberg:

When did you decide, like, I want to study space and go into space?

Jessica Meir:

Well, my mom says, I started saying it when I was five years old, and I think a lot of children say that from when they're young. I just never stopped saying it.

Jessica Meir on "Arena Stage" to talk about her life as a Astronaut. Photo: Techarenan / PR

Linda Nyberg:

In 2019, that was the first all-female spacewalk crew as well. 

Jessica Meir:

Well, there had been 13 or 14 other women who had done spacewalks before. And this was just the first time two women did one together.

Linda Nyberg:

Can you describe that feeling? The first spacewalk.

Jessica Meir:

Yeah. I would say doing a spacewalk was the mission’s highlight for me. I think that's true for many astronauts because it's a much different feeling than when you're in the spacecraft or the large volume of the International Space Station.

You're out there on your own, really, in your own mini, self-contained spacecraft. You have all the gear you need to support your life, and you're looking down at the earth through this thin visor of your helmet. The colors even look a little bit different through that vantage point. You're just alone out there. And it's it's an incredible feeling looking down at the planet.

And, of course, it’s it's a very difficult task. It's the most challenging thing that we do. It's the riskiest thing that we do. So, it takes a lot of focus. Unfortunately, you usually concentrate on getting the job done safely and successfully.

You don't have as much time to take in the views, but occasionally, you must remind yourself to stop and smell the roses. Right?

Just stop and look at the earth and remember where you are.

Linda Nyberg:

In space, we see that you were reading Pippi Longstocking. How Swedish do you feel?

Jessica Meir:

Well, I'm the first generation American, so my parents were married here in Sweden, and my mama comes from Västerås, so they were married here. My oldest two sisters were born here, and the rest were born in the US. So I think I grew up feeling very Swedish because, you know, we were different.

My parents were both immigrants. They were both from different countries. And we grew up in a very small town in northern Maine. It looks a little bit like Sweden.

In northern Maine, there are towns called "New Sweden" and "Stockholm." Even so, I think that growing up, I felt very Swedish.

We celebrated Swedish holidays, you know, we did Lucia, and we had all those traditions growing up. I probably felt less Swedish when I came to Sweden because it shows how American I am, having grown up there.

But I like to claim the Swedish side. And, of course, I still am. I'm a dual citizen.

The national football stadium "Friends Arena" is situated on the opposite side of Mall of Scandinavia in the municipality of Solna in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo: Keyvan Thomsen Bamdej

Linda Nyberg:

But do you think that I mean, the dream a lot of us have is to live even on Mars, has been on Mars, has been a dream for a lot of people. Is that feasible? What do you say? Could we live on other planets? Do you see that?

Jessica Meir:

Eventually, in the future, of course, that will require a lot of technological advances and innovation. Perhaps a lot of the people here can solve those problems for us because, you know, we don't have the atmosphere or environment we have here on this planet. If we're going to sustain life on the moon or Mars. But I think with the right level of resources and the right technology, we can absolutely do that.

Linda Nyberg:

You mentioned tech there and the importance. If you look at space today, it’s supposed to be one of the frontiers in tech and innovation. Would you say that is the case? Is it that advanced?

Jessica Meir:

I would say yes and no. We’re always using the latest technologies to solve our problems. However, if you look at a particular set of equipment on the International Space Station, it also takes quite a long time for something to be certified to fly in space.

So, sometimes, the technology lags by several years because it’s already perhaps past its prime out here on Earth by the time it’s approved and implemented in space. 

Maybe sometimes it's a little bit ironic that we think we should be, you know, a little bit more futuristic.

But at the same time, we have new advances all of the time. And so we're seeing that kind of thing in some of the newer space vehicles, for example, and some of the different technologies we’re using for communications.

Linda Nyberg:

I hate asking this as a woman, as there are a lot of men in your field. Your outfits like they look a bit. What should I say? They look huge! But you told to me your space suit is trendy and cutting edge design.

Linda Nyberg:

Yeah, so the space suit we currently use in the International Space Station was designed in the 70's. So, it's the same space suit we used for the shuttle spacesuits. Space suits are very expensive. They take a long time to develop. So, we actually had some newer space suits in development earlier. But they've taken quite a while just because of a resource limitation. We're still using those same spaces designed in the 70-s.

The astronauts in the 70's didn't all look like me. The sizes we have for space suits are a little bit too large for me. So, we have to adapt, which makes it a bit more challenging in the beginning. The good thing is that NASA has certainly progressed beyond that, and the new space suits designed for the future will fit a much larger diversity of people.

I think it goes from 1 or 5 percentile to 95th percentile even though I think it's the fifth percentile Japanese female to a 95th percentile American male. We'll all really fit in there in the future. Space suits are a little bit better, but for now we're a little bit tied. It's a little bit of an anachronism from the past.

Linda Nyberg:

Things are going fast in tech, and of course, in space. Could you tell us about your experiments, lab tests? What is the latest now? What are we looking into for research in space that is super interesting according to you?

Jessica Meir:

So, we still have the space station program going on now and we think until 2030. So, we have a lot of experiments like I described in all of the different scientific fields.

But I think the most exciting aspect that probably people care the most about is the Artemis program. That is our effort to return to the moon and eventually to to get on to Mars.

So, for exploration purposes, also for scientific purposes, I think that the most exciting element will be going to an area on the moon that has never been explored before, the south pole of the moon. That is much more difficult than where the Apollo landing sites were. Those were more equatorial around the centre of the moon and on the south pole of the moon you have near constant shadows.

The sun is only at about a ten degree angle all the time, so that makes it a lot more difficult in terms of navigating and landing a spacecraft. But we're extremely excited about that. We had a successful Artemis one mission which was really the test for the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System.

Now three of my NASA colleagues and one Canadian astronaut will be going to the moon, hopefully launching in the fall of 2025. That's the Artemis two mission, the first time that we'll have humans in that capsule. They'll be going all the way out around the moon. They won't be landing on it yet. It'll be about a ten day mission, and they'll come back.

And then the missions after that will be the landing missions, where we'll really return to doing all those scientific objectives, where we're getting samples from the moon once again.

Matchmaking Space. Photo: Keyvan Thomsen Bamdej

Linda Nyberg:

I mean, you did a great job for Sweden in space. We're going to see some more pictures coming up there. But one thing that, you know, I was scrolling yesterday to see, what should I know about Jessica? And there was a picture of you and the King. He gave you a medal.

Jessica Meir:

It was, I did. It was an incredible honor, especially to be in that room. I think around 28 or so people were getting medals that day from actors, diplomats, ambassadors, authors, and teachers. A very diverse crowd of very, very impressive people. So, it was an absolute honor. And my mother was there with me as well. We also had a nice tour of the castle afterward, so it was really wonderful.

Linda Nyberg:

When discussing Swedes in space, I mean Marcus Wandt came home a few days ago.

If you put yourself into how did you. When we saw him, some of us stuffing, he couldn't hardly walk. Of course, I've never been up in space. But did you? What do you feel when you come back home to Earth? To the uninteresting earth?

Jessica Meir:

I had an expression that I used a lot when I came back, and that was. "Gravity is overrated". I felt very much at home when I arrived at the space station — floating around. Of course, you're not very graceful at first. You have to adapt to the environment, but some people feel sick during the first few days up there, and others feel worse when they come home. 

I didn't have that when I went up there, but when you return, you feel it's interesting. You literally feel gravity because, of course, you haven’t had that force for, in my case, 205 days.

Almost seven months without gravity. When you come back, you feel a little bit like you're on the playground, that bully on the playground that's pushing you down. You feel like you're being pushed down in your seat or even when you're standing, just being pushed down, and you're quite tired. 

It takes a little while for your body to get used to gravity and reorient to that. And, you know, you're a little bit in the first hours especially, you're a little bit like a drunken sailor because you're neuro vestibular system. Your neurovestibular system and inner ear depend on balance and spatial awareness; some of those mechanisms are gravity-dependent. So it really takes time for you to get used to gravity again. Gravity was definitely overrated.

Linda Nyberg:

Do you want to go back to space?

Jessica Meir:


Linda Nyberg:

If we look at the pictures again, the photos you sent us that we've seen also in the media; You're making tests like there are lab tests. Can you tell us about it?

Jessica Meir:

The primary purpose of the space station is science. The space station’s first module was actually launched back in 1998. Then, we had what was called assembly, which was completed in 2011.

So, many of the early missions were focussed just on building the space station, and some were Christer Fuglesang missions. He was really a construction worker in space, assembling the space station. Since 2011, we've been able to really focus heavily on science.

We are doing experiments ranging from physiology to medical experiments and how that environment affects the human body, protein, and crystal growth so protein crystals can grow larger and more pure without gravity. That's important for pharmaceutical research because scientists can elucidate target sites for protein binding.

So you can develop a drug. For example, Duchenne muscular dystrophy has often been studied as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, all of these diseases where we need some target therapeutic therapeutics; we do experimental experiments on materials science, combustion experiments, of course, even flames burn differently when you don't have gravity in order and convection to move air around.

Linda Nyberg:

How do you feel when you're working with this? You're actually working in a lab.

Jessica Meir:

The space station is a US national Lab. You know, it's a little bit different than as a scientist. I'm used to working in the lab back on Earth, so it's slightly different.

But, if you talk about innovation, one of the most difficult things about experimenting with space is not the experiment itself. It's all the logistics involved because now you have to figure out how to do that experiment without gravity. So you have to contain fluids.

You have to do all these different things to adapt the materials. And that's actually the most challenging part for the scientists on the ground. We have a picture of the experiment of the lettuce that we grew in space. That was one of my favorites because, as a biologist and nature lover, having something green and growing was really nice.

I think it actually helps. One component was the psychological effects of having something green and alive. We were watering those plants daily and taking care of them, and then we got to eat them at the end. Part of it, of course, part of it had to come back down to the scientists. But we had a fresh salad at the end, which was really a highlight. I eat salad almost every day on Earth, so it was really nice to have fresh vegetables up there.

When you look at it, I mean Earth is in turmoil. I can understand you don't want to be on it right now. A lot of things are going on here.

City of Solna with physical booth presence at "Friends Arena". Photo: Keyvan Thomsen Bamdej

Linda Nyberg:

You are one of the 18 chosen for the Artemis project. I mean, can we give her a warm hand? That's so cool. Would you like to go back in space?

Jessica Meir:

I would love to be on another mission. The good thing is that there are quite a few missions if the program is successful. So, there will be many of us who will have a chance to do that. Even if it doesn’t end up being me, it’s so exciting to play a part of it from the ground - and knowing that one of my friends or colleagues will be doing it. So, it’s an extraordinary time to be an astronaut. 

Linda Nyberg:

What does your day and work look like nowadays? 

Jessica Meir:

My favorite part of the job, whether on the ground or in space, is that every day is different. We are not just sitting around the desk doing the same thing daily. We might fly in the Northrop T-38 Talon for our flight training component one day. Another day, we are underwater in space suit training, reminding ourselves how to use those skills. I just had my first training in the xEMU space suit, a government reference design for the space suit used for the lunar missions.

So, now, instead of floating in the pool, along the space station, we are actually in the bottom of the pool, where they have a whole simulated moon area with rocks, etc., where we can walk around in the bottom of the pool in this lunar space suit, doing various tasks was a lot of fun.

On other days, I’m taking Russian language classes. 

When we are not assigned to a mission, we work in different jobs in the office, supporting all the different departments in NASA; recently, I was working with the coordinators of the astronaut office or the human landing system program. That’s the program for which we are building the lander to return to the moon. SpaceX has the contract for that.

I would liaise between the astronaut office and SpaceX for that. So, yeah, there are a lot of different roles.

Linda Nyberg:

Interesting you mention the Russian language. You could say that working with space projects is an international space. Can you talk a bit about that? 

Jessica Meir:

The International Space Station comprises main partners such as NASA, The Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, The Canadian Space Agency, and The European Space Agency.

So, all of us have been working together from the beginning. It was designed in a clever way that implies that cooperation is required. So, we depend on each other, which is very important for a peaceful project like that. It forces us to live on like that despite the current political situation.

Floor plan. Photo: Techarenan / PR

Linda Nyberg:

We’ve had discussions on energy - and what we can do. There is such a focus on the climate and net zero. What can space research do for the energy challenge?

Jessica Meir:

I would say that the International Space Station is a great example of a sustainable ecosystem. 

If you’ve seen pictures from the Space Station, you’ll notice that large solar panels dominate it. All our energy on the space station comes from those solar panels and that power system. We reclaim 80-95 % of our water from the toilet. So, we have a saying, of course, “Yesterday’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.” We are recycling and purifying our water, just the urine.

We also collect the power from the air, basically from a humidifier system, so everything from sweat to the moisture in the environment is reclaimed. 

NASA has several examples of innovation that lead to developments on the ground. Normally, we are credited with teflon and velcro. None of those things came from NASA. But people are not aware of things that came from NASA. The image sensors used in cameras were developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in the early 1990s.

Initially, people thought it was ridiculous: “Who would want to have a camera in its cell phone”?

That’s another story.

The air purifier technology is another invention developed at NASA by some plant researchers who tried to remove the plant hormone “ethylene” from the air. Ethylene is the same that makes your bananas rotten. I have several at home, as Houston’s air is not as great as in Sweden. 

So, back to your energy question, I would say many of these applications and technologies we use at NASA have also trickled down to innovative strategies on Earth.

Linda Nyberg:

You are a mum yourself. What about your daughter? Would you like her to be an astronaut? 

Jessica Meir:

She is only 13 months old now, so she hasn’t made up her mind yet. We’ll be supportive of anything she’d like to do. Of course, I encourage her because it can be useful to step in my footsteps. But we’ll see what she wants. 

The spirit of exploration is perhaps derived from my mother because growing up in a small town in Northern Maine, surrounded by a lot of nature and trees. She took us out and taught us a lot, so from an early age, I had this fascination with plants, animals, and the world around me, which led to just asking questions. 

Like with scientific development, it’s important to keep asking questions. That’s the advice I would give to my daughter and the young innovators in the crowd.

Keep asking questions.