Megan McArthur takes aim at the moon

When Megan McArthur was deciding what path to take at university, a chance encounter with Kathryn Sullivan – the first US woman to do a space walk – helped her make up her mind.

So it was only appropriate that, when McArthur went into space in May to help service the Hubble telescope, she fulfil a request from the woman who had helped set her on this incredible journey.

“She [Sullivan] had had a new [astronaut office lapel] pin made that hadn't flown in space,” McArthur, 38, said.

“She didn't remember me at all but I remembered her and I said I'd fly it for her. She actually launched the Hubble telescope so it was nice to come full circle.”

McArthur joined NASA nine years ago with an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and a PhD in oceanography.

A sense of humour has helped. It was a long time coming. It was nine years with NASA before I went into space.

At that point she also had her private pilot's licence and deep-sea diving licence.

She believes the ability to be a generalist, who can specialise in many things, has been key to her success in the astronaut program.

“You have to be trained to be a specialist at many things,” she said. “It takes patience to learn all those things plus also waiting your turn [to go into space]. A sense of humour has helped. It was a long time coming. It was nine years with NASA before I went into space.”

McArthur trained for 1½ years specifically for her first space mission. Its purpose: to service the 19-year-old Hubble telescope for a fifth and final time.


She clocked 12 days and 21 hours in space, performing the roles of flight engineer and mission specialist.

During take-off and landing she sat on the flight deck with the pilot and commander and responded to malfunctions.

Once in space, she remained indoors and operated the robotic arm that secured the telescope for servicing.

It's a long way – both literally and figuratively - from jumping into a tank to do educational demonstrations at a Californian aquarium.

“Take-off is a pretty intense feeling of speed and acceleration,” she said. “For the first 2½ minutes, when the rocket boosters are attached, it's a pretty intense shaking.

“They come off after 2½ minutes and it's a smooth ride. You're lying on your back and the rocket is going straight up. Because you are accelerating, it feels like someone is standing on your chest, it's hard to breathe, it's like sipping air.

“After 8½ minutes all three engines cut in and we're floating. Everyone has grins on their face because we're in space.”

Her next job will be supporting the crew of the shuttle Atlantis. It will deliver fellow female astronaut Nicole Stott, as well as equipment, to the International Space Station.

“We only have about 20 women on the active roster for the astronaut office and about 60 men,” she said.

“We'd love to see that number even out but we draw from the sciences so, as we get more women into science and engineering, that will happen.”

In a few years' time she also hopes to secure a spot on the International Space Station.

After that, well, NASA is also working on a new vehicle to take astronauts back to the moon.

“In my career span that would be the pinnacle,” she said. “The next step will be Mars but that really is the next generation.”