Hometown Heroes 2009: West Point Welcomes Home One of Their Heroes
On the morning of Oct. 2, as he had done so many times before, Bill McArthur arrived early for his mechanical engineering class at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. But this time he wasn’t a student, he was the teacher and he wasn’t wearing the black and gray uniform of a cadet, he was wearing the iconic blue flight suit of an astronaut. Almost four decades after graduating from West Point he had been invited to return to his alma mater as part of the Army’s annual homecoming celebration and NASA’s Hometown Heroes campaign.
McArthur graduated from West Point in 1973 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He returned to teach at the distinguished military academy in 1983 and in 1987 the Army re-assigned him to work for NASA as a Space Shuttle vehicle integration test engineer at Johnson Space Center. In 1990, he was selected as an astronaut and flew on three shuttle missions followed by a six-month stay onboard the International Space Station (ISS). He now serves as the manager of the Orbiter Project Office for the Space Shuttle Program at JSC.
McArthur’s return to West Point was one of three Hometown Heroes events occurring the weekend of Oct. 3. Throughout the 2009 fall football season, astronauts have been returning to their alma maters to help celebrate two major NASA milestones - the 10th anniversary of the space station in orbit and the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Recognition during the football game along with media, community and educational outreach events are all part of the campaign.
McArthur began his West Point visit the morning of Oct. 2 by sharing the story of his life onboard the space station with Army cadets during three separate mechanical engineering classes. Next was a lunch presentation to a packed conference room of cadets and faculty members before heading off base to spend the afternoon at nearby Highland Falls Middle School (HFMS). About 400 students, teachers and parents listened intently as McArthur stressed the power of how a good education can help dreams, like his to become an astronaut and eventually live in space, come true.
“Col. Bill McArthur's presentation at our school was for most, if not all, a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Ellen Connors, principal of HFMS. “To be witness to a first-hand account of the space program's history is a memory that all will hold in their hearts and minds forever. I assure you that you've made 400 new friends and fans!”
“When she got home Friday, my daughter took one of her old school pictures out of a frame and replaced it with her autographed picture of Col. McArthur,” added Mary Jane Pitt, parent of an HFMS sixth grader. “It's now hanging proudly in her room.”
After signing autographs for more than an hour, McArthur ended his visit by presenting the HFMS staff with a photo of the Highland Falls, NY area taken from the space station.
On Oct. 3, game day at West Point, McArthur spent the morning talking to parents and faculty during a pre-game breakfast and at the Army cadet review that followed. Next was an autograph session just outside Michie Stadium, home of the Army Black Knights football team. Just before kickoff, McArthur joined the more than 24,000 fans in the stadium as the Black Nights hosted the Tulane Green Wave.
At halftime, McArthur was interviewed by the Army radio broadcast team and between the third and fourth quarter was recognized on the field where he received a standing ovation from the fans.
“I feel totally recharged,” McArthur said, standing on the sidelines afterwards with a huge smile on his face.
"What strikes me most about Bill MacArthur is that he always has time for everyone,” said Joe Tombrello, deputy director of Public Affairs and Communications for the U.S. Military Academy. “Whether teaching a class to cadets, discussing old times with a classmate, accepting a handshake from a well-wisher, or simply signing an autograph for a 5th grader whose dad is stationed in Korea, Bill made everyone feel as though they were the most important thing in his life at the time.”
And as the sun set on an empty Michie Stadium, McArthur was easy to spot in his blue flight suit just outside the gate talking with cadets and their families and sharing the excitement of both his life as an astronaut and the future of NASA’s space exploration opportunities.