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

5min read
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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."

3 Min Read
Lifestyle

Help! Am I A Fraud?

The Armchair Psychologist has all the answers you need!


Help! I Might Get Fired!

Dear Armchair Psychologist,

What's the best way to be prepared for a layoff? Because of the crisis, I am worried that my company is going to let me go soon, what can I do to be prepared? Is now a good time to send resumes? Should I save money? Redesign my website? Be proactive at work? Make myself non-disposable?

- Restless & Jobless

Dear Restless & Jobless,

I'm sorry that you're feeling anxious about your employment status. There are many people like yourself in this pandemic who are navigating an uncertain future, many have already lost their jobs. In my experience as a former professional recruiter for almost a decade, I always told my candidates the importance of periodically being passively on the market. This way, you'd know your worth, and you'd be able to track the market rates that may have changed over time, and sometimes even your job title which might have evolved unbeknownst to you.

This is a great time to reach out to your network, update your online professional presence (LinkedIn etc.), and send resumes. Though I'm not a fan of sending a resume blindly into a large database. Rather, talk to friends or email acquaintances and have them directly introduce you to someone who knows someone at a list of companies and people you have already researched. It's called "working closest to the dollar."

Here's a useful article with some great COVID-times employment tips; it suggests to "post ideas, articles, and other content that will attract and engage your target audience—specifically recruiters." If you're able to, try to steer away from focusing too much on the possibility of getting fired, instead spend your energy being the best you can be at work, and also actively being on the job market. Schedule as many video calls as you can, there's nothing like good ol' face-to-face meetings to get yourself on someone's radar. If your worries get the best of you, I recommend you schedule time with a qualified therapist. When you're ready, lean into that video chat and werk!

- The Armchair Psychologist

HELP! AM I A FRAUD?

Dear Armchair Psychologist,

I'm an independent consultant in NYC. I just filed for unemployment, but I feel a little guilty collecting because a) I'm not looking for a job (there are none anyway) and b) the company that will pay just happens to be the one that had me file a W2 last year; I've done other 1099 work since then.

- Guilt-Ridden

Dear Name,

I'm sorry that you're wracked with guilt. It's admirable that your conscience is making you re-evaluate whether you are entitled to "burden the system" so to speak as a state's unemployment funds can run low. Shame researchers, like Dr. Brené Brown, believe that the difference between shame and guilt is that shame is often rooted in the self/self-worth and is often destructive whereas guilt is based on one's behavior and compels us to do better. "I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it's holding something we've done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort."

Your guilt sounds like a healthy problem. Many people feel guilty about collecting unemployment benefits because of how they were raised and the assumption that it's akin to "seeking charity." You're entitled to your unemployment benefits, and it was paid into a fund for you by your employer with your own blood, sweat, and tears. Also, you aren't committing an illegal act. The benefits are there to relieve you in times when circumstances prevent you from having a job. Each state may vary, but the NY State Department of Labor requires that you are actively job searching. The Cares Act which was passed in March 2020 also may provide some relief. I recommend that you collect the relief you need but to be sure that you meet the criteria by actively searching for a job just in case anyone will hire you.

- The Armchair Psychologist