Mission Accomplished

UCSD Alumna Looks Back on Her Journey into Space

Ioana Patringenaru | July 13, 2009

UCSD alumna Megan McArthur smiles during a welcome home ceremony for Atlantis' crew at Ellington Field, near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Courtesy of NASA.

Flying 350 miles above the Earth inside the space shuttle Atlantis, UC San Diego alumna Megan McArthur would often look down from the flight deck at the world’s oceans and the thin layer of atmosphere that protects our planet. The view brought back memories of everything she had learned as a graduate student at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“It really drives home the fragility of our planet,” she said.

Seven weeks after Atlantis landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California after close to 13 days in space, McArthur looked back on her mission. She and six other crew members conducted repair work on the Hubble Space Telescope, a task akin to performing brain surgery in space, according to NASA. MacArthur also talked about how her time at UCSD prepared her to serve as an astronaut. She said she would like to visit the campus again and bring back the items she flew for the university during her mission: a deep-sea rock, a banner and a patch. “I miss San Diego every day,” she said.

Before she became an astronaut, as a graduate student at Scripps, McArthur said she loved going out on boats to do her own research and to help her fellow students collect animals and samples. Going out to sea is fairly similar to going out in space, she pointed out. “You’re out there with a crew and with the equipment you have and you have to make do with that,” she said.

“We’re not any better suited to survive underwater than we are to explore space,” she added.

The mission

Crewmembers pose for a group picture on Atlantis' mid-deck. Front row, from left: Gregory C. Johnson, pilot; Scott Altman, commander; and Megan McArthur, mission specialist. Back row, from left: Andrew Feustel, John Grunsfeld, Mike Massimino and Michael Good, all mission specialists. Courtesy of NASA.

During Atlantis’ mission, McArthur was in control of the shuttle’s 50-foot robotic arm. Her tasks included getting a hold of the Hubble and guiding it safely to the shuttle’s cargo bay. She also carried her fellow astronauts on the end of the arm, so they could do their work hands-free during space walks. In addition, she used the arm to move large pieces of equipment, about the size of a baby grand piano or a telephone booth.

She says she can still vividly recall the first time she saw the Hubble through one of the shuttle’s bays as a small star on the horizon. She also remembers clearly extending the robotic arm and grabbing the telescope for the first time. She said she was amazed that everything went pretty much as she expected during the mission.

“What we did was incredible, as a human engineering feat,” she said.

Cramped quarters

McArthur waves to the crowd during a welcome home ceremony for Atlantis' crew at Ellington Field, near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Courtesy of NASA.

One moment did give her pause, she recalled, when two of her fellow astronauts came back inside the shuttle after their first space walk. The shuttle’s living quarters are much smaller than most people realize, perhaps the size of a studio, she explained. She looked at the shuttle’s mid-deck, which is no larger than a walk-in closet. It was filled with three gigantic, human-sized tool bags, space suits and other equipment. She remembers thinking she wouldn’t get to eat or sleep until all that gear was put away.

In these tight quarters, each astronaut carried a few personal items. McArthur flew a rock from the Scripps Oceanographic Collections. Scripps scientists collected the triangular, greenish rock from the Tonga Trench, home to the second-deepest point in the oceans and the deepest spot in the Southern Hemisphere. It will be displayed in a future exhibit about the deep ocean at the Birch Aquarium. McArthur also flew a banner for students and a patch for Scripps’ Marine Physical Laboratory.

Scripps Professor William Hodgkiss, her doctoral thesis adviser, said he hopes she will be able to come back to UCSD with the items and talk to the campus community about her experiences. Since her return from space, McArthur has discussed her days on the shuttle quite a bit during several public outreach events at NASA space centers and at companies that made hardware for Atlantis’ mission. But the whole experience is still somewhat surreal, she said.

“It does sometimes feel like it was all a dream,” she said.

Her trajectory

As the daughter of a Navy pilot, who grew up around airplanes and airbases, space was McArthur’s first love. She dreamed of working for NASA. She studied aerospace engineering as an undergraduate at UCLA. That’s when she discovered scuba diving, after she joined a team of undergraduates who were building a small, two-person submarine. She was the only one small enough to fit in the spot designated for the pilot. To be able to drive the sub, she had to get a scuba certification. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, so the certification was a challenge. But it opened new doors for her.
“I fell in love with the ocean,” she said.

The Earth's oceans and atmosphere, as seen from Atlantis during the mission's 12 days in space. Courtesy of NASA.

After graduating from UCLA, she set out to find a way to combine her new passion with her engineering background. She found Hodgkiss’ lab at Scripps. For her thesis, she used acoustic transmissions to measure sea floor properties off Camp Pendleton. She also applied to become an astronaut and was accepted in the NASA space program before completing her doctorate.

Like millions of Americans, Hodgkiss followed the UCSD alumna and her crewmates on news broadcasts and the Internet during their mission. “You can’t help to be full and pride and excited,” he said. He also said that McArthur deserves all the credit for her professional trajectory.

“It’s a statement of her own vision,” he said.

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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