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

5min read
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.

Photo courtesy of Megan McArthur & NASA

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

Photo Courtesy of Megan McArthur

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.

Photo Courtesy of Megan McArthur, Photo Credit: Flickr

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."

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4min read
Lifestyle

What I Learned About Marriage as a Survivor of Abuse

Marriage can be a tightrope act: when everything is in balance, it is bliss and you feel safe, but once things get shaky, you are unsure about next steps. Add outside forces into the equation like kids, work, finances or a personal crisis and now there's a strong chance that you'll need extra support to keep you from falling.


My husband and I are no strangers to misunderstandings, which are expected in any relationship, but after 7 years of marriage, we were really being tested on how strong our bond was and it had nothing to do with the "7-year itch"--it was when I was diagnosed with PTSD. As a survivor of child sexual abuse who is a perfectionist, I felt guilty about not being the "perfect partner" in our relationship; frustrated that I might be triggered while being intimate; and worried about being seen as broken or weak because of panic attacks. My defense mechanism is to not need anyone, yet my biggest fear is often abandonment.

I am not a trained therapist or relationship expert, but since 2016, I have learned a lot about managing survivorship and PTSD triggers while being in a heterosexual marriage, so I am now sharing some of my practical relationship advice to the partners of survivors to support my fellow female survivors who may be struggling to have a stronger voice in their relationship. Partners of survivors have needs too during this process, but before those needs can be met, they need to understand how to support their survivor partner, and it isn't always an easy path to navigate.

To my fellow survivor sisters in romantic relationships, I write these tips from the perspective of giving advice to your partner, so schedule some quality time to talk with your boo and read these tips together.

I challenge you both to discuss if my advice resonates with you or not! Ultimately, it will help both of you develop an open line of communication about needs, boundaries, triggers and loving one another long-term.

1. To Be or Not to Be Sexy: Your survivor partner probably wants to feel sexy, but is ambivalent about sex. She was a sexual object to someone else and that can wreak havoc on her self-esteem and intimate relationships. She may want you to find her sexy and yet not want to actually be intimate with you. Talk to her about her needs in the bedroom, what will make her feel safe, what will make her feel sexy but not objectified, and remind her that you are attracted to her for a multitude or reasons--not just because of her physical appearance.

2. Safe Words = Safer Sex: Believe it or not, your partner's mind is probably wondering while you are intimate (yep, she isn't just thinking about how amazing you are, ha!). Negative thoughts can flash through her mind depending on her body position, things you say, how she feels, etc. Have a word that you agree on that she can say if she needs a break. It could be as simple as "pause," but it needs to be respected and not questioned so that she knows when it is used, you won't assume that you can sweet talk her into continuing. This doesn't have to be a bedroom only rule. Daytime physical touch or actions could warrant the safe word, as well.

3. Let Her Reconnect: Both partners need attention in a relationship, but sometimes a survivor is distracted. Maybe she was triggered that day, feels sad or her defense mechanisms are up because you did something to upset her and you didn't even know it (and she doesn't know how to explain what happened). If she is distant, ask her if she needs some time alone. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't, but acknowledging that you can sense some internal conflict will go a long way. Sometimes giving her the space to reconnect with herself before expecting her to be able to focus on you/your needs is just what she needs to be reminded that she is safe and loved in this relationship.

4. Take the 5 Love Languages(r) Test: If you haven't read this book yet or taken the test, please at the very least take the free quiz to learn your individual love language. My top love language was Touch and Words of Affirmation before remembering my abuse and thereafter it became Acts of Service and Words of Affirmation. Knowing how your survivor partner prefers to be shown love goes a long way and it will in turn help your needs be met, as they might be different.

5. Be Patient: I know it might be frustrating at times and you can't possibly totally understand what your survivor partner is going through, but patience goes a long way. If your survivor partner is going through the early stages of PTSD, she feels like a lot of her emotional well-being is out of her control. Panic attacks are scary and there are triggers everywhere in society. For example, studies have shown that sexual references are made anywhere from 8 to 10 times during one hour of prime time television (source: Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media). My husband is now on high alert when we watch TV and film. He quickly paused a Game of Thrones episode when we started season 2 because he realized a potentially violent sexual scene was coming up, and ultimately we turned it off and never watched the series again. He didn't make a big deal about it and I was relieved.

6. Courage to Heal, Together: The Courage to Heal book has been around for many years and it supported me well during the onset of my first flashbacks of my abuse. At the back of the book is a partners section for couples to read together. I highly recommend it so that you can try to understand from a psychological, physical and emotional stand point what your survivor partner is grappling with and how the two of you can support one another on the path of healing and enjoying life together.