Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you ended up a professional space traveler. What was it that motivated you to, or inspired you, to become an astronaut?
Preflight Interview: Megan McArthur, Mission Specialist
A: I think I have always been interested in aviation. My father was a naval aviator, flew airplanes for a lot of years, and so growing up I was always around airplanes. For a number of years we lived at Moffett Field Naval Air Station, which is also where the Ames Research Center is, when I was in high school, and we used to see astronauts come out there to do some of their training and they’d park their T-38s out there on the ramp and come in for training, and I thought, well, that looks like a pretty neat job. But mostly it made me interested in the space program in general, because that seemed like kind of a long shot to ever get selected to be an astronaut. But I liked the idea and I sort of tucked it away in my head. I studied aerospace engineering in college and got interested in some other things along the way, but always came back to the idea of being an astronaut. What appeals to me about it is, I think it’s a challenging job. You are having to know lots of different things. You have to be a generalist as well as a specialist in some areas, and, of course, it’s a lot of fun.
I like to ask people about their hometowns and, and you said you don’t have one.
I don’t. I am a military brat. As I said, my dad was a naval officer so we grew up moving around all over the world. I was born in Hawaii and we moved through California to Japan to England, Rhode Island, back and forth to California over the years. That’s where my family is now so I do consider California my home state, but I don’t really have a hometown.
Do you have a sense of how living in that many different places contributed to making you the person that you are today?
I think it helps you adapt to different situations and, of course, it makes you close to your family because as you move around that’s, that’s your close group of friends that you have with you. But I do think it helps you, get comfortable in new situations pretty quickly. You have to learn that skill, and I think that’s, that’s a valuable skill.
Well, you said that you ended up in California, I think, for high school, right? Take us from there and give me the thumbnail sketch of your education and your professional career before you came to NASA.
Well, I went to high school in the California Bay Area, near Moffett Field Naval Air Station, and then I went to university, at the University of California in Los Angeles, and I studied aerospace engineering there for four years. Towards the end of my studies at UCLA I got interested in a project with some other aerospace engineering students that was called the Human Powered Submarine Races, or Human Powered Submarine Project, and what we did, basically, was we built a small two-person submarine, and raced it against some other colleges and, it’s kind of funny that, you know, a bunch of aerospace engineering students got interested in this but a friend of mine Derek, who was going into the Navy as a submarine officer, had read about this project and decided he wanted to participate and talked all of us into doing that. And, as part of that project I ended up being the, the pilot for the sub because, as the only girl I was the smallest and the only one that would fit in the spot that we had designated for the pilot. It was a pedal-powered submarine so we gave all the room to the guy that was going to be driving the propellers. I had to get scuba certified in order to do this project because the submarine is flooded, it’s full of water. And so, basically, the process of getting scuba certified and starting to learn about the oceans, was very appealing to me. I got interested in ocean engineering at that time and ended up working for a few months, at an ocean engineering company in San Leandro, Calif. They design underwater robots and some manned submersibles as well. I did that for a few months and then did my sort of post-college wandering, I went to Ireland, actually, for a few months, and I worked in a dive shop down in southwest Cork. That was a lot of fun. I loved being around the ocean, in the ocean all the time, and ended up going to graduate school for oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but sort of ocean, oceanography for engineers — the program was called Applied Ocean Sciences. I studied in particular underwater acoustics, what we can learn about the ocean by using sound. I did that for six years but always kind of held on to this idea that being an astronaut would be, would be pretty exciting and pretty challenging. And so at one point during my graduate career and I went ahead and applied to NASA and just got really lucky and got interviewed and got hired.
Tell me about what it was like when you got the news that you’d been assigned to your first flight.
Well, the week leading up to the announcement, I was actually working in Mission Control Center and I was working the night shift, so I wasn’t going into my office at all, I wasn’t going by my desk. The chief of the Astronaut Office, Steve Lindsey, makes the phone calls and he had been calling me at my desk and, of course, I wasn’t there. I was going to work but I just wasn’t, wasn’t going to my desk. And so the word was getting out amongst the crew, folks who had already heard and they had also heard who else was going to be on the crew. So the word was getting out a little bit but I was one of the last people to find out. One of the things that happened was coming in to Mission Control, I had to slam shift from working the night shift to working days and I still hadn’t come into the office, and I ran into our pilot on the crew, who I see occasionally, and he said, he said, “Have you talked to Scooter lately?” Well, Scott Altman, Scooter, is the, is the crew commander, but not somebody that I would see very often or talk to on a regular basis. I said, “No, why do you ask?” And he said, "Oh, I …, and he had this really funny look on his face, “I was just wondering if you knew how he was doing.” That was very suspicious to me, but I had to go and work a shift in Mission Control and I didn’t have a whole lot of chance to think about it. But when I got home that night and my phone rang and it was Steve Lindsey, I finally knew what was going on. He asked me did I want to be on the crew for the servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Well, Megan, we know that flying in space can be dangerous. I’m curious what it is that you think we get as a result of flying people in space that makes this risk one you’re willing to take?
Well, I don’t think we can do what we do without flying people in space. We don’t have the robots and machines to do the tasks that we’ve chosen to do in space. Why I think flying in space, why exploration is important to me … I think it’s important to the human spirit. It’s something that we have always done, pushed beyond the boundaries of what we know, what we can do, what we can build. We’re always pushing ourselves; we’re always looking to find out what’s out there and what we can learn. I think it’s a very natural thing for humans to do and we just happen to be right on the edge of that.
When was the first time you ever heard of the Hubble Space Telescope?
The first time I ever heard of the Hubble Space Telescope was when I was a college student at UCLA. I was studying aerospace engineering and interested in NASA and in the space program as maybe a future career opportunity, not with a specific idea of what I might do but just in general interested in the space program.
What is it that you think Hubble has meant, both to astronomy and to space exploration? How has it made a big contribution?
Well, I’m not an astronomer but I can tell you that whenever I talk to people everyone has heard of the Hubble Space Telescope and seen the images that have come back from some of the instruments. They are fascinated by what they see in those images, not only because they’re beautiful to the eye but also because of the questions that are asked and also answered by looking at these images. When I learn about what it is that we’re seeing, what these images represent, it really is fascinating and it’s kind of mind-boggling. I think that as human beings we’re very curious about the world around us and, of course, about the universe around us, and these images help to sort of answer some of those questions but also encourage us to ask more because we are very curious, I think.
There are a lot of people involved in getting you and your crewmates ready to fly this mission, and not just here in Houston. Tell me about the training and the support that you’ve received from the people behind the Hubble, at the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Space Telescope Science Institute.
We’ve been out to Goddard and the Space Telescope Science Institute a couple of times and met the folks that work on the telescope and with the images. It’s an amazing group of people, so enthusiastic, so excited that we’re doing this mission. When I’ve met some of these people and they tell me their stories about how for 20 years they’ve been part of this project, it’s amazing, and it, it’s very exciting. You want to do your best work to help these people with the dream that they’ve been working on for 20 years. I’ve sort of come lately to this project but it’s very inspiring to meet them and it sort of gives you a sense of responsibility that you want to do your best work for them.
And, of course, it’s no surprise that the people who work on the project love the Hubble Space Telescope, but it’s become something of an icon outside of the science community, too. What is it that you think it is about Hubble that gets people so excited about it?
I do think it’s the imagery that gets produced from some of the instruments on the telescope that get published and really captures the imagination of the general public that see those images. They’re beautiful and what they represent is fascinating, I think, not just as scientists but to everyday folks. As we see images and we hear about data that tells us, hey, there are other planets out there that are similar to planets we have in our own solar system, that really captures the imagination. I think human beings are just very curious about what else is out there.
The pictures are great. What’s your favorite Hubble image?
It’s really hard to pick a favorite. I like the Cat’s Eye Nebula. I think it’s a beautiful image, and I think it’s also very interesting for how it shows sort of the life cycle of a star, or the death of a star. Another favorite is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, which we have as the background for our crew portrait. What I like about that image is, basically, as I understand it, they pointed the telescope at a very dark part of the sky, what looks like a dark part of the sky to us, and they pointed it in the same place for many orbits, a week long, basically, looking at the same part of the sky. What they discovered was hundreds of galaxies in this one part of the sky that when we look at it looks like there’s nothing there and we can see back in time, 13 billion years. That’s amazing to me; it’s just fascinating. It just makes your jaw drop.
You’re mission specialist on this flight to the Hubble Space Telescope. Megan, summarize the goals of the mission and tell me what your main jobs are.
Well, this is the fifth servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, and what we’re going to do is basically extend the life of the telescope for another few years, another five years at least, hopefully. We’re also going to repair and upgrade some of the instruments on board the telescope, and the way we’re going to do that is by capturing the telescope and placing it in the shuttle’s payload bay, and then some of our crew members will do five different spacewalks to do this repair and upgrade work.
And you are going to be at the controls of the arm for all of this.
I’ll be driving the robotic arm for all of the EVAs. Our commander, Scott Altman, is also an arm operator and he will be there to back me up on the EVAs as well as he’ll be the prime arm operator for one of the five.
After the loss of Columbia, this final Hubble servicing mission was cancelled. It was decided it was too risky. But that decision was reversed almost two years ago and here you are. What was your feeling about the decision not to fly to Hubble, and then your feeling about the decision being changed?
Well, the decision not to fly the Hubble, as you say, was made after the Columbia accident. Of course, I was disappointed that we were not going to be participating in the, in the Hubble mission anymore. I didn’t have a personal connection at that time to the telescope but I was just disappointed that we had lost a capability that we had demonstrated in the past. When they made the decision to return to the telescope, they sort of announced that decision at the same time they announced which crew members were going to be going so, of course, I was immediately involved in that. My attachment to the telescope grew pretty rapidly on, on hearing that announcement, so I was thrilled, not only because we are participating in something that’s going to really contribute to the body of scientific knowledge but also because I personally am going to get my first spaceflight.
Well, on this flight like all shuttle flights now, you, the crew’s going to do a thorough inspection of the vehicle using the Orbiter Boom Sensor System.
Tell me about how that’s accomplished and what it is that you’re looking for.
Well, the Orbiter Boom Sensor System is a 50-foot-long boom, that resides on the other side of the payload from the robotic arm, and on the end of that boom it has a package of sensors that can help give us, basically, a 3-D image of what the thermal protection system looks like on the orbiter. We take the robotic arm, we pick up this boom, and then we use it as an extension, basically, of the robotic arm to reach all of these different areas on the orbiter that we’re interested in. We have a team of engineering experts who have determined which parts of the orbiter we need to look at and how closely we need to look at them and, determine if there are any cracks or problems with the thermal protection system that would need to be repaired in order for us to return safely home.
You know, we practiced different means of repairing a shuttle on orbit since Return to Flight. Why kinds of damage could you guys fix if you found it?
There are cracks of up to a certain size that can be repaired, there are also holes that can be covered, so there’s a variety of different methods that we’re looking at to potentially repair problems. It also, of course, depends on where that problem is. There are some areas of the thermal protection system that are more critical than others and can only withstand very small damages.
Well, unlike other shuttle flights, yours does not have the option of waiting at the International Space Station for another ride home if it turns out that Atlantis can’t make the trip back through the atmosphere.
Explain to us what the options are in terms of a rescue.
Well, the plan, and this plan had to be developed before we could make the decision, obviously, to do this mission, but the plan is to have another orbiter ready to go on the launch pad, or very near to being on the launch pad, in order to launch to come and get the crew on board Atlantis, to come and get us. And so, if we determine, by the initial inspection and then further focused inspections on the area of interest that we couldn’t repair any damage that we had sustained, they would send another crew up to come and get us.
How does that work? How do two shuttles get together and how is the crew is transferred?
That’s a good question and we haven’t done any specific training on that scenario yet, but we do have some of our crew members following the development of that scenario. Basically what we would do is we would rendezvous with the other shuttle, or that shuttle would rendezvous with us, in orbit, just as you would rendezvous, say, with the telescope or with the space station. Then they would use their robotic arm to grapple our shuttle and every person would go out in a spacewalking suit and cross over to the other space shuttle.
That definitely would be the “unplanned” EVAs.
All the work that you’ve been training to get Hubble back up running at full speed, depends on successfully getting it into the shuttle’s payload bay so that you can do the work. Tell me about the part that you play in those operations, and then describe how you’re going to go about getting the telescope out of the sky and onto that work platform.
Well, the first thing we have to do is rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit and that really is a full crew effort. The commander runs the show, obviously, but the pilot and pretty much all of the mission specialists are involved in that effort. What we do is a series of burns, basically, to catch up with the Hubble Space Telescope in the orbit that it’s in. Once we have matched rates with the telescope, the commander, Scott Altman, and myself work together to basically hand over control. As soon as we’re comfortable that the orbiter’s rate has been matched to the telescope and the telescope looks to me like it’s stable and not moving, then I take the robotic arm, the shuttle’s robotic arm, and I reach out and grab the telescope. There is a, a grapple fixture, a pin, basically, on the side of the telescope, that we use. The robotic arm grabs onto that. Once we have a good capture of the telescope, I then maneuver the robotic arm, to install the telescope into a berthing mechanism at the back end of the shuttle payload bay. And once we have installed the telescope in that berthing mechanism, we latch it down and I can release the shuttle’s robotic arm.
When you were discussing trying to match rates, I guess, if I understand it right, you’re trying to get the shuttle and telescope to fly in formation together …
… so that they’re not moving so that you’ve got a good target to shoot at.
That’s exactly right.
How much mobility, how much quick response does that arm have, to be able to get that grapple fixture if it’s moving?
Well, the idea would be for the telescope to be moving only very slightly or, not at all, hopefully, very slightly with respect to the arm, so that we can do a nice, controlled, smooth approach to the grapple fixture and do a clean grapple. If the telescope does have a rate on it, it’s rotating, say, with respect to us, I can match that rate with the robotic arm and still go in for a grapple. We practice that extensively here at Johnson Space Center. I have an instructor that spends a lot of time with me just going over that very scenario.
I know you haven’t done it in real life, but what, what’s it like to fly a 50-foot-long robot?
Like you say, I haven’t actually done it yet but I think the simulators here are very good and show us what the induced motion would look like as I control the robotic arm from inside. It sort of depends on what you’re doing. When we fly the robotic arm for the EVAs, I’m just sort of moving wherever the crew member tells me to move. If you’re far away from structure then you’re not really worried about running into anything. But some of the things we do are a little bit closer to structure and sort of more critical in that sense, and so it sort of ups your awareness of what you’re doing.
Right after the berthing I think there’s a couple of hours in the timeline set aside for you guys to do a survey of the telescope. What is it that you’re looking for then?
Basically we’re looking at how the telescope may have changed since the last time anybody saw it. So they’ll take a lot of pictures and send them to the ground, to compare with the last set of pictures that they took before the Hubble was released, from the previous servicing mission. And then also we’re looking for anything that might be of concern to the folks that are going to go out doing a spacewalk on the telescope, maybe some paint is peeling off or there might be, maybe a micrometeoroid hit on the telescope that might cause a jagged edge on something that the crew member needs to put their hand on. So they’re just looking for anything that they can see that they want to be cautious about when they go out there.
Is that survey from still cameras and video?
The timeline you mentioned earlier, calls for five spacewalks to be conducted over five days. Tell me about how you guys inside Atlantis are dividing up the responsibilities, from helping the spacewalkers get ready to go outside, to running the robotic arm, to working with Houston, etc.
Well, I can tell you that everybody’s pretty busy all the time. There will be two spacewalking crew members on any given day that’s actually going out the door; the other two crew members will help them get suited up, as well as the commander and pilot will be helping them to get suited up as well. And then once the crew members are outside the airlock, the two EVA crew members that remain inside basically choreograph that spacewalk from inside. They have the play list, if you will: They’re going to be telling the folks outside exactly every step that they need to do, what tools they need to have, and they’re going to be guiding them throughout the process. I’ll be driving the robotic arm throughout each one of those spacewalks. There’s always one of the crew members on the end of the arm and I help put them into position to do their work so they can be hands-free, they’re not having to hold on to stabilize themselves. I can put them in a stable position so they can do their work. And then the commander is always up there as well backing me up on the arm and then also just prepared for anything that might happen that’s unexpected. So we all keep pretty busy.
What is it that makes the job of running the shuttle robotic arm a challenge, in your mind?
That’s a good question. I think the thing that is potentially challenging about driving the robotic arm is when you are getting close to objects and you can’t see them well, and so, we have lots of camera views as well as, of course, the out-the-window view to see what we’re doing. But there are some things that I just can’t see and so I’m relying on the crew member that’s outside on the arm or near the arm to help me stay away from hitting anything. The last thing you want to do is hit the telescope or hit one of the crew members, and so we have to really work closely together to do that. Frequently, or really, always, the EVA crew member is really concentrating and focusing on their task and what they’re doing, and so we have to find the right kind of communication so that we get the information back and forth that we need.
I’ve talked to other people who’ve run robotic arms and they say it’s almost like developing another language, to learn how to clearly verbally communicate with those people.
It certainly is. A clear and concise communication is very helpful, and it’s a kind of communication that we try to use in a lot of different aspects of flying in space. I’ve worked for a number of years as a capcom, a capsule communicator from the Mission Control Center, and, really, working any procedure, you want to have that clear and concise communication. We also try to use that type of communication when we’re flying T-38s, with air traffic control and with other airplanes. It’s something that you develop, really in lots of different ways in the training program here, and it’s not necessarily unique to the robotic arm but certainly, when there’s a lot of other communication going on, you want to be as brief and as clear as you can be.
When it comes to the arm operations during these five spacewalks, are you serving as a work platform, or are you moving large pieces of equipment?
Both. Sometimes there is a crew member riding on the end of the robotic arm and they are carrying a large piece of equipment. Some of these new instruments are the size of a baby grand piano, or the size of a telephone booth, and that’s kind of what they look like. So we have to be very careful with the rate at which we move and, as we’re moving toward structure, that we have good clearances and that kind of thing. Other times there’s just the crew member by themselves working with tools on the telescope, with no additional heavy object that they’re carrying. And then other times, there’ll be no crew member on the robotic arm and it’s just there as a tool platform for the crew member that’s working nearby, to reach over and grab the items that they need off the tool stanchion on the robotic arm.
As far as the equipment that you’re going to install, it seems to me that it kind of breaks up into two categories: cameras, of some form or fashion, and then other hardware that points the telescope, that’s used to help point the telescope …
… in the right place. Give me a sense of the kinds of things you’re going to be putting in.
There's lots of different, items that we’re going to be putting into the telescope. One of the first things that we’ll do is the rate sensing units, a very high priority item. The gyroscopes, as you say, help, point the telescope at what they want to look at, and there are three positions for that. There’s six total but two in each package, and the crew member is inside the telescope in very close quarters and really having to be very careful with not running into any of the other equipment that’s in there, to potentially damage it or get it off kilter. That person, one of them is on the end of the robotic arm, and so we have to be very careful with how we move and make sure that somebody is always looking, at the thing that’s nearest to us so that we don’t run into it. So that, that’s a pretty challenging task. There’s a crew member on the end of the robotic arm taking an instrument out and we’ll run back and forth to these storage carriers, basically, in the payload bay to get out the new equipment. So they get the old damaged piece of hardware out, we get a new piece and then we take it back inside. Those are sort of the smaller pieces of hardware. Then there are the larger pieces of hardware that we talked about that are sort of baby grand piano-sized. Those are carriers that get opened up and then the crew member pulls this instrument out, and again we try to do that very slowly. There are very delicate parts of the instrument that we don’t want to bump into anything. So the crew members have to work together to orient that instrument and then they’re working with me as well to tell me where they need to go. The Wide Field Camera is like that, the Fine Guidance Sensor is like that, and then there’s an instrument called COS [Cosmic Origins Spectrograph]. That’s a spectrograph that is, looks like a telephone booth to me, again a very large instrument that’s in sort of very close quarters in a carrier that’s near the telescope. It’s a little bit challenging with the, with the lack of views and so again I’m relying on the spacewalking crew members to, to look around and make sure the arm is clear from structure before I move.
And the guys that are going to be out there, some of those tasks they’re going to be doing are things that they were never supposed to do …
… they weren’t designed to be done in space.
Right. They’re doing a couple of repairs on some instruments that have broken down over the last couple of years, and the scientists that use them really want them back. The data is very valuable and very unique and in the case of the Advanced Camera for Surveys, produces some of the beautiful images that we’re used to seeing. Basically there are some circuit cards in there that have fried and the crew members are going to be pulling them out on orbit. This involves removing a hundred tiny screws that weren’t designed to be removed in space. We have a team of engineering experts that have come up with an ingenious solution to this problem, but the crew members are basically inside the telescope removing these hundred tiny screws in order to get at a circuit card, in these instruments and replace it. It requires a lot of very fine motor skills on their part and, of course, they’re wearing these big oven mitts on their hands which make it very challenging. Those particular spacewalks for me, as the robotic arm operator -- I’m sort of parked nearby, in order to, to give them access to the tools that they might need. But those are some very exciting spacewalks for our team and we’re really looking forward to good success there.
After five spacewalks complete, it comes time to put Hubble back to work.
Describe the plan for a possible reboost and then for releasing the telescope and leaving it in a stable condition in orbit.
As I understand the plan for reboost, after the last EVA, the fifth EVA, we’ll set up for the reboost that evening. Then the next morning, we’ll use the robotic arm to grapple the telescope in its berthing mechanism. We’ll move it out of that berthing mechanism and away from the orbiter and, once I release the telescope, just very smoothly back away from it. Then the commander will take control of the orbiter and back the orbiter away from the telescope, and then we do a series of burns to get farther away from it. Now, in case something doesn’t go the way we planned or we can’t release it or the telescope isn’t operating as we expect it to, we have two of our spacewalking crew members, ready to go out the door to do a contingency EVA to help with that process. So, we’ll see.
I guess one of the things that as the arm operator that you’ve got to be concerned about is to make sure that when you release it, it’s steady and not turning in some way.
Right. You certainly want to do a clean, smooth backaway, you don’t want to tip off the telescope and, and have, and do some kind of motion that’s not expected so what I plan to do is just a real nice, smooth backaway and, and get away from the telescope so that we’re clear of it as we back the orbiter away.
And you and your crewmates are going to be the last people to ever lay eyes on Hubble as it floats away. Any thoughts about what that’s going to be like?
I think it will be a pretty special moment for all of us. I don’t really know how that’s going to feel; I’m still thinking about what it’s going to feel like to see it for the first time.
It’s kind of neat, I think, that there’s a need for a crew of human beings to go to get a robot telescope in shape to continue its mission in space. Megan, what are your thoughts about the future of space exploration and how those two components, the human and the robotic, are going to have to work together to make the whole thing work?
Well, I think you’re right that it will always be human and robotic working together in space exploration. We don’t have the capability yet — we may never have the capability — for robots to duplicate the processing power, basically of a human being. So having that relationship where humans are interacting with machines to complete the task, I think, is something that we’re always going to be using.