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NASA Astronaut Megan McArthur Talks Space, Aliens, and Women in the Industry

People

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."

And toiletries?

“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."

Career

Male Managers Afraid To Mentor Women In Wake Of #MeToo Movement

Women in the workplace have always experienced a certain degree of discrimination from male colleagues, and according to new studies, it appears that it is becoming even more difficult for women to get acclimated to modern day work environments, in wake of the #MeToo Movement.


In a recent study conducted by LeanIn.org, in partnership with SurveyMonkey, 60% of male managers confessed to feeling uncomfortable engaging in social situations with women in and outside of the workplace. This includes interactions such as mentorships, meetings, and basic work activities. This statistic comes as a shocking 32% rise from 2018.

What appears the be the crux of the matter is that men are afraid of being accused of sexual harassment. While it is impossible to discredit this fear as incidents of wrongful accusations have taken place, the extent to which it has burgeoned is unacceptable. The #MeToo movement was never a movement against men, but an empowering opportunity for women to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual harassment. Not only were women supporting one another in sharing to the public that these incidents do occur, and are often swept under the rug, but offered men insight into behaviors and conversations that are typically deemed unwelcomed and unwarranted.

Restricting interaction with women in the workplace is not a solution, but a mere attempt at deflecting from the core issue. Resorting to isolation and exclusion relays the message that if men can't treat women how they want, then they rather not deal with them at all. Educating both men and women on what behaviors are unacceptable while also creating a work environment where men and women are held accountable for their actions would be the ideal scenario. However, the impact of denying women opportunities of mentorship and productive one-on-one meetings hinders growth within their careers and professional networks.

Women, particularly women of color, have always had far fewer opportunities for mentorship which makes it impossible to achieve growth within their careers without them. If women are given limited opportunities to network in and outside of a work environment, then men must limit those opportunities amongst each other, as well. At the most basic level, men should be approaching female colleagues as they would approach their male colleagues. Striving to achieve gender equality within the workplace is essential towards creating a safer environment.

While restricted communication and interaction may diminish the possibility of men being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, it creates a hostile
environment that perpetuates women-shaming and victim-blaming. Creating distance between men and women only prompts women to believe that male colleagues who avoid them will look away from or entirely discredit sexual harassment they experience from other men in the workplace. This creates an unsafe working environment for both parties where the problem at hand is not solved, but overlooked.

According to LeanIn's study, only 85% of women said they feel safe on the job, a 5% drop from 2018. In the report, Jillesa Gebhardt wrote, "Media coverage that is intended to hold aggressors accountable also seems to create a sense of threat, and people don't seem to feel like aggressors are held accountable." Unfortunately, only 16% of workers believed that harassers holding high positions are held accountable for their actions which inevitably puts victims in difficult, and quite possibly dangerous, situations. 50% of workers also believe that there are more repercussions for the victims than harassers when speaking up.

In a research poll conducted by Edison Research in 2018, 30% of women agreed that their employers did not handle harassment situations properly while 53% percent of men agreed that they did. Often times, male harassers hold a significant amount of power within their careers that gives them a sense of security and freedom to go forward with sexual misconduct. This can be seen in cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and R. Kelly. Men in power seemingly have little to no fear that they will face punishment for their actions.


Source-Alex Brandon, AP

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook executive and founder of LeanIn.org., believes that in order for there to be positive changes within work environments, more women should be in higher positions. In an interview with CNBC's Julia Boorstin, Sandberg stated, "you know where the least sexual harassment is? Organizations that have more women in senior leadership roles. And so, we need to mentor women, we need to sponsor women, we need to have one-on-one conversations with them that get them promoted." Fortunately, the number of women in leadership positions are slowly increasing which means the prospect of gender equality and safer work environments are looking up.

Despite these concerning statistics, Sandberg does not believe that movements such as the Times Up and Me Too movements, have been responsible for the hardship women have been experiencing in the workplace. "I don't believe they've had negative implications. I believe they're overwhelmingly positive. Because half of women have been sexually harassed. But the thing is it is not enough. It is really important not to harass anyone. But that's pretty basic. We also need to not be ignored," she stated. While men may be feeling uncomfortable, putting an unrealistic amount of distance between themselves and female coworkers is more harmful to all parties than it is beneficial. Men cannot avoid working with women and vice versa. Creating such a hostile environment is also detrimental to any business as productivity and communication will significantly decrease.

The fear or being wrongfully accused of sexual harassment is a legitimate fear that deserves recognition and understanding. However, restricting interactions with women in the workplace is not a sensible solution as it can have negatively impact a woman's career. Companies are in need of proper training and resources to help both men and women understand what is appropriate workplace behavior. Refraining from physical interactions, commenting on physical appearance, making lewd or sexist jokes and inquiring about personal information are also beneficial steps towards respecting your colleagues' personal space. There is still much work to be done in order to create safe work environments, but with more and more women speaking up and taking on higher positions, women can feel safer and hopefully have less contributions to make to the #MeToo movement.