UC San Diego Alumna Makes Successful
Contribution on Mission to Fix Hubble

Megan McArthur, an alumna of UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, onboard the space shuttle Atlantis.

Ioana Patringenaru | May 18, 2009

She successfully guided the Hubble Space Telescope into the payload bay of the space shuttle Atlantis. She used the shuttle’s robotic arm to check for damage on the spacecraft’s underbelly. To relax, she got to eat ravioli in space.

It’s been a busy week for Megan McArthur, an alumna of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who is the only woman aboard Atlantis during the shuttle’s 11-day mission to repair the Hubble telescope. As a mission specialist, her job has been to control the shuttle’s 50-foot robotic arm from inside the craft while her colleagues conduct lengthy space walks outside.

The biggest challenge in running the arm is to make sure you don’t hit anything, McArthur said during an interview with NASA before Atlantis took off. “The last thing you want to do is hit the telescope or hit one of the crew members,” she said. The arm and shuttle are equipped with a plethora of cameras but there are still plenty of blind spots, which means McArthur has to rely on her colleagues working outside, she explained. 

Mission Specialist Michael Good rides the shuttle's robotic arm while he works with the Hubble Space Telescope in the cargo bay of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Atlantis. McArthur pilots the arm while astronauts are space walking.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment for McArthur came Wednesday when Atlantis matched the telescope’s speed and she deployed the robotic arm to reach for the Hubble. NASA video shows the telescope moving ever closer to the shuttle. About 350 miles above the Indian Ocean, McArthur started reaching out with the robotic arm, within about 100 feet of Hubble. With the telescope’s bottom moving ever closer, she positioned the arm to align with a pin on Hubble and brought the telescope into the cargo bay for the first time in seven years. “Good job, Megan,” Mission Control radioed. “It’s good to be back with the telescope.”

But McArthur’s work was far from done. Through the remainder of the week, she maneuvered the arm to help her fellow astronauts, who conducted major surgery on Hubble, giving it more power, a better range of motion and new eyes. That meant long hours inside the shuttle as space walks stretched from six to almost eight hours. Astronauts often rode on the tip of the arm and McArthur positioned them near the telescope so they could make repairs.

Mission Specialist Megan McArthur works controls on the aft flight deck of Space Shuttle Atlantis. Mission Specialist Mike Massimino is at her side.

The mission will make Hubble more powerful than ever, NASA administrators said. Today, astronauts replaced some of the telescope’s guidance sensors and installed new thermal insulation. In the past week, they also performed “brain surgery” on Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, among other devices. That entailed unscrewing screws and removing circuit boards—in space, with the equivalent of boxing gloves on. That repair session went smoothly, though. Others dragged on, as astronauts struggled with bolts and rails that would not cooperate.

The images Hubble has produced over all these years are fascinating, McArthur said during her pre-launch NASA interview. “As we see images and we hear about data that tells us, hey, there are other planets out there that are similar to planets we have in our own solar system—that really captures the imagination,” she said.

A crew member on board the space shuttle Atlantis snapped a still photo of the Hubble Space Telescope following grapple of the giant observatory by the shuttle's Canadian-built remote manipulator system.

She remembered meeting the scientists who work with the Hubble and its images and being amazed by their enthusiasm and excitement. “It’s very inspiring to meet them and it sort of gives you a sense of responsibility that you want to do your best work for them,” she said.

Finally, there also was time for some lighter moments. McArthur and her colleagues shot a video showcasing their work and their surroudings. She got to show off the kitchen, with its microwaveable food packets. Did she like the food onboard, a colleague asked. “So far all I’ve had is a peanut butter sandwich and that was tasty,” she said.  She then selected ravioli for her next meal.

Watch NASA Videos
of the Atlantis Mission

Atlantis Crew at Work

Astronaut Mike Massimino takes you on a tour of space shuttle Atlantis as the STS-125 crew works through its first full day in space. Watch video

Atlantis Captures Hubble

Space shuttle Atlantis captures the Hubble Space Telescope during mission STS-125, the final servicing mission to the orbiting observatory. Watch video

Atlantis Roars off
on Hubble Chase

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off to catch up to and service NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Watch video

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