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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Final Frontier

By AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC ’97

You really have to remind yourself to stop and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to look out the ­window for a couple of minutes and think about where I am.’


When the space shuttle Atlantis is launched on its final repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope this spring, its seven crewmembers, including first-time flyer Megan McArthur, Ph.D. ’02, will face unimaginable challenges. The orbital observatory flies on a path 350 miles above earth, more than 130 miles higher than the International Space Station (ISS).Once in orbit, Atlantis’ risk of suffering a hit from micrometeorites or debris from past satellite breakups is 1-in-185, as compared to 1-in-300 for flights to the space station. And unlike the crews traveling to ISS, the astronauts aboard Atlantis will have no safe haven in case of emergency. A rescue crew will be on stand-by, but the dangers will be, to say the least, challenging.


On ascent and re-entry, McArthur will serve as Mission Specialist 2 (MS2), a position also known as Shuttle Engi­neer. She will sit behind the commander and pilot to monitor operations and help run the cockpit if anything malfunctions. During the on-orbit phase of the flight, McArthur will operate the shuttle’s robotic arm.

Despite the perilous nature of her upcoming mission, McArthur claims there’s no fear factor. “Scared isn’t the right word. I’m very excited. I think what you’d hear from most astronauts is that you just want to do your job well. You don’t want to let down the team. If you spend time thinking about anything, it’s that you don’t want to screw up.”


Since the Hubble Space Telescope first deployed in 1990, it has offered scientists—and the general public—unparalleled views into the mysteries of the universe. Four previous missions have serviced the Hubble to date, but the fifth was postponed following the 2003 Columbia disaster. This Hubble flight (STS-125) was originally scheduled to launch in October, 2008, but after an additional computer component on the Hubble failed a month prior, it was postponed until February 2009, and now tentatively for May. When—and at this point, if—STS-125 does make its mission, the stakes are high; it’s the last chance to squeeze a few more years out of the Hubble before NASA’s fleet of three remaining shuttle orbiters is retired in 2010.

For McArthur, going to space is the realization of a lifelong ambition. The daughter of a naval aviator, she grew up as a Navy brat, living on bases like Moffett Field, which is a neighbor of NASA’s Ames Research Center. There she watched astronauts come and go and dreamed of someday joining them. “I wanted to be part of the space program, even if I couldn’t be an astronaut,” she says.

She studied Aerospace Engineering as an undergraduate at UCLA, where she and a handful of other students got involved with the Human Powered Submarine Races. As the smallest member of the crew, McArthur—outdoorsy but “not a risk-taker”—was appointed pilot of the flooded, pedal-powered submarine, a task that required her to become SCUBA certified. “It got me interested in the ocean and ocean engineering,” she says. “And I took a left turn into that.”

After a few months working at a dive shop in County Cork, Ireland, McArthur returned to California to begin graduate work at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography as part of the Applied Ocean Sciences department (in a nutshell, engineers studying the ocean). She focused her research in geoacoustic oceanography, which employs sound to learn about the properties of seafloor sediments. McArthur collected data in shallow waters off Camp Pendleton near Oceanside.

If it seems a strange decision for a would-be astronaut to study the sea rather than the sky, McArthur counters that there are plenty of similarities. For one thing, both the ocean and space represent vast, largely unknown frontiers. “There’s a lot we don’t know about the underwater world,” says McArthur. “We’re not designed to survive and live underwater or in space. There are a lot of technical aspects to exploring in either environment.”

McArthur’s thesis advisor, Bill Hodgkiss Ph.D., says that his former student’s education at Scripps provided her with a solid foundation for a career with NASA. “What a science Ph.D. program teaches you is critical thinking,” explains Hodgkiss. “How do you define a research problem and pull together the pieces to solve it? Even though the kind of things [McArthur] did aren’t directly related to the space program, what’s most important are those critical thinking skills on how to approach new problems.”

“I think having the operational experience of going to sea definitely translates into work I do now,” says McArthur. “You’ve got to be trained on the equipment, know how you’re going to use it, know the procedures, and if something breaks, you have to know how to fix it. You also have to be able to work together as a team of scientists.”

McArthur was first recruited by NASA in 2000. Four years later, she served as a Crew Support Astronaut (a support position in the control room) for the Expedition 9 Crew during their six-month stay at the ISS. She also served as a capsule communicator, or CAPCOM, the only individual in the Mission Control Center who communicates directly with astronauts in space. It is an earthbound experience that McArthur says gave her a strong sense of what to expect in space. “You get a really great working knowledge not only of the system of the space vehicle, but also how the crew works during their day. You’re part of that whole team.”

McArthur(above) in training in the shuttle simulator at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. The crew will install a Cosmic Origins Spectrograph in the Hubble, which will allow scientists to observe light from extremely faint, far-away galaxies. They will also be adding a new camera, replacing gyroscopes and batteries, and adding thermal insulation.

To prepare for her upcoming mission, McArthur trained at the Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages operations for the Hubble, and at the Space Telescope Science Institute, both in Maryland. “Dr. McArthur has received extensive training on operating the shuttle’s robotic arm,” explains Stephanie Turner, STS-125’s Training Manager. “Her visits at Goddard and STSI have included hands-on training in the telescope mockup, work with actual flight hardware, and detailed briefings on the telescope functions.”

Flight Day One of STS-125 entails launch and ascent. On Flight Day 2, the crew will work in shifts to inspect the shuttle thoroughly, using a special sensor package to detect any dings, nicks, or cracks—a protocol added after the Columbia accident. Flight Day 3 is rendezvous time, which involves matching orbit with the Hubble. To do this, the flight crew uses a series of rocket burns to adjust altitudes. Once the shuttle and Hubble are on the same orbital path—the two objects will appear stationary though they are actually circling the earth at 17,000 miles per hour—the crew will assume the precise position through orbital maneuvering, or small thrusts that can be made in any direction. When the Hubble is parked directly above the shuttle’s payload bay, McArthur will use the robotic arm to grab it and lock it down.

Over the following five days, four spacewalking crewmembers (“Not this time for me,” says McArthur) will commence on the Hubble’s repairs and upgrades. The crew will install a Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which will allow scientists to observe light from ex­tremely faint, far-away galaxies. They will also be adding a new camera, replacing gyroscopes and batteries, and adding thermal insulation. The work demands extreme dexterity. Repair of an existing spectrometer, for example, requires a spacewalker in a bulky spacesuit and gloves to remove 100 tiny screws. This is where McArthur’s operational skills become crucial.

“One of [the spacewalkers] is on the end of the robotic arm at all times,” McArthur explains. “We work together. The telescope is the size of a bus. If they had to climb around and hold on, it would limit their ability to use both hands. I put them in position so they can get their work done.”

While McArthur has prepared for every possible technical scenario during this important mission—and she is well aware of the dangers she will face—she admits that she cannot even imagine what the emotional impact of traveling into space might be.

“I think that’s something I’m just going to have to experience in the moment,” she says. “I have a lot of close friends and colleagues who have flown and everybody experiences it a little differently. The one thing you do hear often is that you are working so much—your days are so packed with stuff to do—that you really have to remind yourself to stop and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to look out the window for a couple of minutes and think about where I am.’ I’m looking forward to that.”

AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC ’97, is a San Diego-based freelance writer.