Almost everyone takes a few pictures when they go on a trip. Almost no one, though, comes back with the kind of material that Megan McArthur gathered.
McArthur, who received her doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in 2002, made her first return to campus Nov. 5 since taking part in the historic voyage of Space Shuttle Atlantis in May. The first-time astronaut showed off dazzling home movies from the spaceflight to an audience of more than 200 at the Scripps Seaside Forum. She also recounted her experience from the forces at liftoff that felt like someone standing on her chest to the post-landing disorientation that made it difficult for her to touch her toes without fear of tumbling end-over-end.
McArthur, the only female crew member, said that gender wasn’t an issue on the mission, but acknowledged that there remain a disproportionately small number of women pursuing the science careers that would put them on a track to become astronauts like her. The 38-year-old daughter of a pilot became an astronaut candidate in 2000 while still a student at Scripps.
“I hope that young women see this and think ‘Well, that looks like fun. How do I get to do that job? What are the subjects I have to take in school?,’” McArthur told an audience that included several children. “The advice I would give to anyone is to figure out what it is that you love to do and pursue that. If you don’t love it, you’re never going to be good enough at it to stand out.”
The experience of being an astronaut is something only about 500 people have ever known, but McArthur had the further distinction of being part of a historic mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope and sub out its worn parts with new ones. As operator of the shuttle’s robotic arm, McArthur can count herself as the last person who ever “touched” the telescope while it was in operation, gently releasing it toward the end of the 11-day mission. She continues to work at NASA, supporting current space missions.
McArthur’s evening lecture capped a day of homecoming that included interviews and a return to the kelp tank at Birch Aquarium at Scripps, where the one-time volunteer diver met up with old friends. McArthur, who studied ocean acoustics under adviser Bill Hodgkiss while at Scripps, also brought home souvenirs from the mission. She presented Hodgkiss with a Scripps Oceanography banner flown in space as well as a patch from Scripps’ Marine Physical Laboratory, her division while a student. She also presented a similar banner and framed and mounted patch to current Scripps student Lindsay Smith. Smith, a current NASA fellow, plans to display the items at Surfside, the traditional student gathering place at Scripps.
Among the items returned from orbit, however, a rock presented by McArthur to aquarium Executive Director Nigella Hillgarth made easily the longest journey. The small triangular chunk of peridotite had been gathered from a depth of 9,700 meters (31,825 feet) in 1966 by Scripps scientist Robert Fisher in the Tonga Trench, the deepest ocean region in the southern hemisphere. Hillgarth said that the aquarium plans to create a permanent exhibit for the stone to mark McArthur’s achievement.
McArthur also presented a cap that she wore in space to longtime friend and Birch Aquarium volunteer Richard Harden. He was one of thousands, she said, who helped launch her into space.
“It wasn’t just all the engineers and technicians at NASA who made it possible to have this adventure. It was all the people in my life before that who supported me, who helped me reach this dream,” McArthur said. “I’ve been standing on the shoulders of the folks here at Scripps to reach this goal.”