Jessica Meir develops wilderness skills in Maine as part of her training to be an astronaut. (Lauren Harnett/NASA )

On December 5, NASA completed its first test flight of the spacecraft Orion, a capsule built to carry humans to Mars within the next 15 to 20 years.

That may seem like a long time, but it’s a huge project involving thousands of scientists, engineers, astronauts and administrators. Last month KidsPost began a series of occasional profiles of some of these NASA employees as they head into “The Mars Era.”

When Jessica Meir (pronounced MEER) was 5 years old, her teacher asked her to draw a picture of what she wanted to be when she grew up.

The image she drew, of an astronaut in space, turned out pretty close to what her life looks like now.

Meir is a biologist and will study how humans can adapt to travel far from Earth. (Robert Markowitz/NASA)

Meir is a NASA astronaut candidate at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. In June 2013, she and seven other applicants were selected from a pool of more than 6,000 for an intensive training course that will prepare them to fly into space.

For Meir, the successful Orion test in December (just months away from the end of her two-year training) was an impressive sign of things to come.

“It’s very realistic that people in our class may fly on these new vehicles for their first flight,” she said by phone from Houston. “So it was very exciting for us to watch that.”

Unlike many of her classmates, most of whom specialize in physics and engineering, Meir is a biologist. That means she studies living things — specifically, how animals adapt to extreme environments. She has gone scuba diving in Antarctica to understand how penguins swim without oxygen and has worked with bar-headed geese from the Himalaya Mountains to study how they fly at high altitudes.

Now Meir is studying another animal in an extreme environment: humans in space. Just as penguins adapted to long dives underwater, she and her fellow astronauts will have to develop technology that will allow them to survive while they are far from Earth.

Meir is looking forward to the mental and physical challenges of that job.

“While you’re conducting this science and learning along the way, you’re also testing your body and your strength,” she said.

But she and her classmates have a lot of work to do before they can go to space. Their two-year program includes daily visits to a neutral-buoyancy lab that mimics what it feels like to walk without gravity, engineering training and language lessons that will help them communicate with Russian astronauts at the International Space Station. Meir is also learning to fly jets — an experience she describes as “phenomenal.”

“A lot of the other training environments that we have are just simulations, like the neutral-buoyancy lab,” Meir said. “But flying a jet is the real thing.”

Meir and her classmates don’t know when they’ll get to fly their first mission, or if they’ll be the ones to pilot Orion for the first time. But she says knowing that her work will help get astronauts to Mars motivates her every day. As a biologist, she’s particularly interested in what conditions on Mars can teach us about life on Earth.

“Mars has always captured the human imagination for decades and decades, it’s always been the planet that everyone’s looking toward,” she said. “Knowing it’s out there, it’s what drives everything that we do.”

Sarah Kaplan

Meet Jessica Meir

Age: 37.

Home town: Caribou, Maine.

Career building blocks: “I liked to play a lot with my older brother’s Lego sets that had space themes.”

Attended space camp at Purdue University at age 13.