Stellar Scripps Alum Blasts Off to Space


As a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Megan McArthur spent a lot of time underwater studying ocean acoustics. On May 12, she will explore another vast, largely unknown frontier – space.

McArthur, who received her Scripps Ph.D. degree in oceanography in 2002, will be an astronaut aboard Atlantis, the last space shuttle to visit the Hubble Space Telescope. Over 11 days and five spacewalks, the seven-member crew is expected to make repairs and upgrades to the telescope, readying it for at least another five years of groundbreaking research.

“I’m extremely excited for Megan, and proud to see her involved in such a significant mission,” said Scripps Oceanography Director Tony Haymet. “Amazing scientists graduate from Scripps, and Megan’s achievements are a testament to how far they can reach.”

This will be the first space flight for McArthur, 37, who was selected as an astronaut by NASA in 2000 while she was still a graduate student at Scripps. During the mission, she will operate robotic arms used to stabilize and assist astronauts servicing the Hubble during spacewalks, extremely challenging procedures akin to brain surgery in orbit.

She is taking with her into space a rock from the Scripps Oceanographic Collections. Scripps scientists collected the triangular, greenish rock from the Tonga Trench, home to the second-deepest point in the oceans and the deepest spot in the Southern Hemisphere. Upon McArthur’s return, this out-of-this-world rock will be displayed in a future exhibit about the deep ocean at Birch Aquarium at Scripps.

From the Ocean to Space

McArthur fell in love with the ocean while studying aerospace engineering at UCLA after she was required to become SCUBA certified in order to participate in Human Powered Submarine Races with other engineering students.

She combined her two passions – engineering and the ocean – during graduate studies at Scripps. McArthur conducted research in nearshore underwater acoustics and participated in a range of in-water instrument testing, deployment, maintenance, and recovery, and collection of marine plants, animals, and sediment.

While at Scripps, Megan participated in the National Science Foundation-sponsored “Girl Power” program that teaches young girls that math and science can be fun. She also volunteered as a diver at Birch Aquarium at Scripps and participated in educational dive shows from inside the aquarium’s 70,000-gallon exhibit tank of the California Kelp Forest.

To Infinity and Beyond

NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis was originally set to launch in October 2008, but was delayed after a Hubble computer that communicates with the ground malfunctioned just 17 days before the launch date. However, as a result, mission managers were able to test a spare unit and teach astronauts how to install it, further extending Hubble’s life.

This final round of upgrades is expected to greatly extend the reach of Hubble, images from which have already shed light on many of astronomy’s great mysteries. Launched in 1990, the telescope orbits above Earth’s atmosphere, providing a clear, unparalleled view of the universe.

During the mission, the Atlantis crew will install a new camera with ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths that will allow the Hubble to capture large-scale, extremely clear and detailed pictures in colors that span a wide range of wavelengths.

A new spectrograph will observe light emitted by extremely faint, far-away quasars and measure how that light changes as it passes through gas between galaxies. This data will help scientists understand how galaxies are formed and how the chemical makeup of the universe has changed over time.

McArthur is understandably excited about her upcoming journey.

“I think it’s important to the human spirit,” McArthur said about space exploration in an interview on the NASA Website. “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.”

--Jessica Z. Crawford

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