People 01 May 2017
Like many of us, Megan McArthur toyed with the idea of being an astronaut in her youth. What sets her apart, however, is that she went on to actually do it. Yes, McArthur is a real life, space-exploring astronaut employed by NASA. Despite the time she's spent soaring above the stratosphere, she's incredibly down-to-earth. During our recent interview with her, she illuminated us on topics ranging from what it takes to become an astronaut, seeing Earth from space, the existence of aliens, and hygiene in a microgravity environment.
Becoming an Astronaut
“I was determined to become an astronaut back when I was a high school student, but I knew it was a long shot," McArthur told SWAAY. “I went off to UCLA and studied aerospace engineering with the goal of working in the space industry somehow. In the early '90s, as I approached the end of college, a friend who knew I was interested in pursuing a career at NASA sent me the information for how to apply to be an astronaut."
Though she was not qualified to apply at the time, the application helped McArthur better understand NASA employees' varied backgrounds and experience, and served as a guide for what she needed to do to make her dream of becoming an astronaut a reality.
She threw herself into the engineering project she was working on (building a human-powered submarine, no big deal), and went through the process of getting scuba certified. Upon graduation from UCLA in 1993, she began working on her Ph.D. in Oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. There, she conducted research in nearshore underwater acoustic propagation and digital signal processing. She also obtained a private pilot's license, and volunteered at Scripps' Birch Aquarium as an educational demonstrator for the public, which entailed spending time in a 70,000-gallon exhibit tank. All this was fueled by her passion to explore the world in its entirety, and it also contributed to the skillset working astronauts possess.
Finally, while in graduate school, McArthur felt she was ready to apply to NASA, and poured herself into the application process.
“I put in my application in 1999 and was interviewed that year," she said. “I got picked up in the class of 2000 along with 16 other astronaut candidates, and began training that August to become a Mission Specialist."
For the two years that followed, McArthur trained extensively at the Carter training facility in Houston, Texas. The regimen involved everything from operating robotic arms, spending time in a space flight simulator, and “spacewalk training in a huge swimming pool that's 40-feet deep," she said.
After completing her training in 2002 — the same year she obtained her Ph.D. — McArthur was assigned to work at the Astronaut Office Shuttle Operations Branch as a shuttle system technician. She also served as the Crew Support Astronaut for the Expedition 9 Crew during their six-month tenure, and was the Capsule Communicator for the Space Station and Space Shuttle Mission Control Centers.
Going to Space
On May 11, 2009, after years of training, McArthur took the 5,276,000-mile journey into outer space as a crew member of the STS-125 mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. This was the fifth and final servicing mission of the telescope, and McArthur was the flight engineer on the near 13-day journey.
“Waking up on launch day was like Christmas morning," said McArthur. “I was super excited, and the only thing I was afraid of was making a mistake, or making the mission harder than it needed to be for my team. But you train so hard – and you work, work, work – and I was so focused on all the logistics and getting everything right."
She recalled sitting there, still strapped into her seat shortly after launching, and seeing the Earth outside her window. In work-mode, she says she thought to herself, “There's the Earth. It's right where it's supposed to be," and then went back to work again.
It wasn't until hours after the launch that she could finally pause and gaze out the window.
“Seeing Earth from that angle was awe-inspiring," she said. “Even though you're so far away, it creates within you this tremendous love for your planet. You can see how thin the atmosphere is, and you feel this supreme responsibility to take care of, and preserve, its beauty. And what was truly remarkable for me was seeing these huge thunderstorms over the oceans. It's like watching your own light show."
STS-125 was a successful mission. The crew retrieved the Hubble Space Telescope with the shuttle's robotic arm, brought it into the cargo bay, and then spent six days servicing its frozen bolts, stripped screws and finicky handrails. It was then returned, this time with new and rejuvenated scientific instruments, batteries, gyroscopes, and a new computer.
On Packing a Space Bag, Keeping Clean, and Aliens
When we asked McArthur how you pack a bag for outer space, she revealed that it's actually quite simple, since the crew has a team of experts managing their provisions and food. They're also strict in terms of what clothes and personal items you're allowed to take with you.
“For my mission, you're asked to choose a certain type of pants, shorts, and socks, and then you can have a specific shirt that you can order from a specific place," she said. “You're allowed a very small allotment of personal mementos, as well. I asked everyone in my family to give me something of theirs. I also have some things from my university, as well as photographs of people in my family."
“You can take sponge baths to keep yourself clean, but we don't have a shower or bath," said McArthur. “My experience was only two weeks long, but try to imagine people who are up there for longer missions! It's interesting, because you're not walking and therefore not shedding skin cells the same way you do on Earth. You can actually have situations where you shed a bunch of skin cells at once. Everyone has their personal hygiene routine, though. You can even cut your hair if you want!"
We also had to ask about aliens, which McArthur kindly informed us wasn't a weird question at all (though it's often asked by the children she speaks to in her NASA outreach).
“I do believe there is life somewhere in the universe other than on our planet," she said. “In our neighborhood? No. But if I'm really lucky, we may find proof of something while I'm still alive. The universe is so vast. Incomprehensibly vast."
The Future of NASA
When the space shuttles were retired in 2011, it was a difficult day for everyone who loved flying, said McArthur. Still, it created an opportunity for NASA to develop new capabilities. Currently, NASA is working with an exploration class vehicle for deep space exploration, and it also has contracts with Boeing (Space Launch System) and SpaceX (Commercial Resupply Launch) to assist with this.
As for increasing the number of women in the NASA program, McArthur says that it ultimately boils down to choosing astronaut candidates who have STEM backgrounds and are fully qualified.
“Historically, fewer women pursue science, technology and engineering, but we're seeing more and more women coming into those disciplines and then applying to the program," said McArthur. “In fact, our most recent class (2013) has four men and four women. I help with the selection board, and I am meeting some truly fantastic women and men. It's really inspiring, and it makes me grateful that I already have this job because it'd be really difficult to compete with the talent coming in."
A large part of space exploration has to do with “seeing what's out there" and advancing our current technologies. However, it also serves another vital role: it inspires the human race. It compels us to put down our phones and look at the stars, says McArthur, and it motivates us to strive for the "impossible."
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.