UCLA Engineering alum K. Megan McArthur ’93 gives a first person perspective from space, gives advice to young engineers
By Matthew Chin and Judy Lin
When Space Shuttle Atlantis mission STS-125 lifted off May 11 for NASA’s final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, a proud Bruin was among the seven crew members. This is her first space flight. Mission Specialist K. Megan McArthur earned her B.S. in aerospace engineering at UCLA in 1993. She went on to obtain a Ph.D. from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. In 2000, she joined NASA, where she worked in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory and the Space Station and Space Shuttle Mission Control centers. In 2004, she served as the crew support astronaut, stationed at the Johnson Space Station in Houston, for the Expedition 9 crew during their six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. The planned repairs to the Hubble should allow the telescope to function until at least 2013, when its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is due to be launched. UCLA Today spoke with McArthur during the weeks before her mission.
How did your interest in becoming an astronaut start?
My dad was a career naval aviator, so I was always around airplanes growing up. As a teenager, we lived at Moffett Field Naval Air Station, which is on the same base as NASA’s Ames Research Center [in Sunnyvale, Calif.]. I used to see astronauts flying in to do their training in one of the simulators there, and I thought, well, that looks like a pretty neat job. But mostly it made me interested in the space program in general, because it seemed like a long shot to ever get selected to be an astronaut. But I liked the idea and tucked it away in my head. What appeals to me about being an astronaut is that it’s a challenging job. You have to be a generalist as well as a specialist in some areas — and, of course, it’s a lot of fun.
Did you have an experience at UCLA Engineering that helped you find your career?
One of my good friends in school, Derek Leek, was going to be a Navy submarine officer after graduation. He read about a competition called the Human Powered Submarine Races, and put together a small team of aero engineers to compete. With the support of the engineering school, we designed, built and raced a two-person flooded submersible at the International Submarine Races in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The experience of designing, building and operating real hardware was a crucial part of my education.
What’s it like to anticipate actually launching in a space shuttle?
It is hard sometimes to get my head around the fact that we’re leaving the surface of the Earth. It’s not really going to sink in for me until I am out there and have a minute to look out the window, take a deep breath and go “Wow!” Our orbit will be about 300 miles above the surface of the Earth. I tease my family, “Well, I’m only going to be 300 miles away.” But, of course, that’s only when I’m on the same side of the planet as they are. And even just to talk about that — like that’s a normal thing to do — is pretty amazing.
The Hubble is renowned for its awe-inspiring images of the universe. Are you glad to be on a mission to service it?
It’s a tremendous feeling for me, very meaningful to realize that I’m going to contribute to the body of knowledge that we have about our universe. Everyone who sees images from the Hubble are fascinated by what they see, not only because the images are beautiful to the eye, but also because of the questions that are asked. There are other planets out there that are similar to planets we have in our own solar system. That really captures the imagination. I think human beings are just very curious about what else is out there.
You have a couple of different jobs throughout the mission. What’s your job as you take off?
During the ascent portion of the flight, we have about eight minutes when we’re under the power of the main engines, leaving the surface of the Earth to get into orbit. Inside the shuttle on the flight deck, I’ll work with the commander, the pilot and another mission specialist — it takes four people to fly the spacecraft. We’ll work together to keep everything on track and make sure we’re going where we’re supposed to. I’m trained to run procedures in the event of malfunctions, but we expect things to go really smoothly.
What will you be doing when it comes time to service the Hubble?
Once we’re in orbit, we rendezvous with the telescope. Participating again with the commander and the pilot and the other mission specialist, we’ll do a sequence of burns to match our rate of speed in space with the telescope — to fly in formation. When we get very close to the telescope — within a couple hundred feet — the commander and I will look out windows that face into the payload bay and determine if we’ve succeeded in matching rates. We’ll all be going 17,500 miles per hour around the Earth, but relative to one another, we’ll look very stable. When we’re matched up, I’ll use the ship’s robotic arm to grab the telescope and place it in the payload bay — like putting something in the bed of your pickup truck. We have to be very controlled in the way we do everything, something we’ve trained over and over again in the simulator.
How will the Hubble be serviced?
We’ll send out four crew members trained to do spacewalks, who will go out in teams of two to work over a period of five days. Once two crew members are outside the airlock, the two others that remain inside basically choreograph that spacewalk, telling the spacewalkers exactly every step they need to take and what tools they need to have. I’ll be driving the robotic arm throughout each one of those spacewalks. There’s always one of the crew members on the end of the arm, and I’ll help put them into position to do their work so they can be hands-free, not having to hold on to stabilize themselves. I can put them in a stable position so they can do their work. When we’re finished, I’ll use the robotic arm to grab the telescope, take it out over the side of the payload bay and let go of it. Then we’ll do a series of burns to get away from it, pretty much wrap it up and go home.
Flying in space can be dangerous. Why are you willing to take the risk?
Exploration is important to me. I think it’s important to the human spirit. It’s something that we have always done, pushed beyond the boundaries of what we know, what we can do, what we can build. We’re always pushing ourselves; we’re always looking to find out what’s out there and what we can learn. We can’t accomplish this without flying in space. We don’t have robots and machines to perform the tasks we’re going to perform.
We understand you’ll be taking along a couple of items from UCLA?
We are allowed to fly some small personal items for our families as well as for organizations that are important to us. I contacted the School of Engineering and told them, “I’d really like to fly something that represents UCLA with me on my flight because UCLA was a big part of my life.” I’m going to take along a miniature IMP, the computer switch that served as the first node of the Internet at UCLA in 1969. I’ll also be bringing along a UCLA T-shirt because, as you know, go Bruins! I had a lot of life-changing events when I went to school there, so I’m happy to fly with a little piece of UCLA.
What advice could you give people about pursuing their dream?
You have to trust your instincts. You have to find something you love to do and then do it really well, enjoy it. And you have to persevere. It’s been almost nine years since I was hired by NASA to be an astronaut. If you set really large goals for yourself, you have to take the long view … the stair-step approach to reach them. You also have to tell people what it is that you want. Don’t hide your dream because you think, “Oh, it’s crazy for me to want to do that.” Let people know that’s what you want to do, that that’s what you’re working to do and that you’re serious about it. People will help you.
Story reprinted from UCLA Today.