The day I met an astronaut

Okay, I admit it. When I found out that I was standing just a few feet away from Megan McArthur, late of the Hubble repair mission, I freaked out just a little bit. That’s the awesome thing about astronauts—they’re perhaps the only scientists who have the same effect on people as celebrities do.

Despite the fact that she was being assailed by space fans and eager interviewers, Megan was calm, down-to-earth, and happy to talk to whoever came up to her, whether it was a college kid, a reporter from CBS, or this humble blogger. It’s like NASA screens their astronauts for niceness and poise in social situations.

Megan told me that she was first inspired to be an astronaut when she heard a speech by fellow astronaut Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space.

“She told me you have to pick something that you love to do and do it well,” Megan said. For her, that was oceanography. After majoring in aerospace engineering at UCLA, she earned her Ph.D. at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and stayed on as a research scientist. While leading sea-floor expeditions and volunteering at the Scripps aquarium, “I kept the idea alive,” she said. She applied to join NASA in 2000. As Sullivan had predicted, Megan’s passion for her work made her stand out from the crowd of applicants.

On the recent mission to upgrade the Hubble, Megan’s first journey, she logged 13 days in space. “We were so well-prepared that everything was very similar to the simulations,” she said. “Except looking at the earth go by.” She also emphasized that the mission’s success depended on hundreds of engineers who had two feet firmly stuck to Earth. “When things didn’t go exactly as planned, the team in space and the team on the ground found the solution,” she said.

I had to ask Megan if she was scared during the no-turning-back moment of blast-off. “When we were sitting in the launch pad, no one was feeling fear,” she said, even when the warning siren blared through the shuttle cabin, announcing that a piece of equipment had shorted out. Rather than panic, the astronauts calmly got to work fixing the problem. “We had trained so much, we were just focused.”

The most important trait an astronaut must have? Neither fortitude, nor bravery, nor even space-welding skills, Megan said, are as crucial as “the ability to be a good team member. No one person can do this alone.”

Her advice to aspiring astronauts? The same advice Kathy Sullivan gave her sixteen years ago. She pointed out that NASA hires scientists and engineers, oceanographers and astrophysicists and doctors, but they all have one thing in common—passion. “Figure out what you love to do,” she said. “You’ll never be really good at it if you don’t love it.”

So where exactly am I casually bumping into space explorers? Stay tuned for Monday’s post to find out.

In the photo: Intrepid SPS intern Leslie Watkins hangs with space rock star/really nice person Megan McArthur.

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