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Astronaut shares memories, mementos from space

In May, NASA astronaut K. Megan McArthur made her first space flight as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. At 350 miles above the earth’s surface, Atlantis orbited the planet 197 times; a total of 5.2 million miles. The mission took 12 days, but for McArthur the trip wasn’t complete until she returned this month to UCSD and thanked supporters at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO).

McArthur was a graduate student at SIO and Birch Aquarium at Scripps volunteer when NASA selected her in 2000 as an astronaut candidate.

Concurrent with her astronaut training, McArthur wrote and defended her thesis, receiving a doctorate in applied ocean sciences in 2002. That she was able to complete her Ph.D. after joining NASA is “an incredible feat” said her faculty advisor Prof. William Hodgkiss of the SIO Marine Physical Laboratory (MPL).

On Thursday, Nov. 5, McArthur was on campus to share her space experiences and express thanks to the SIO community for its support.

“It’s very humbling,” she said. “Hundreds of people have put me where I am (and) I want to thank the people of Scripps for helping me.”

In a brief ceremony, McArthur presented individuals and the institution with mementos that had flown with her in space. These included an embroidered MPL patch to Hodgkiss and two shuttle STS-125 mission patches: one given to the institution and the other presented specifically to SIO graduate students.

Birch Aquarium at Scripps Executive Director Nigella Hillgarth accepted a rock that originally had been collected by SIO researchers from the Tonga Trench located in one of the deepest parts of the Pacific Ocean.

“We will be displaying this at the Birch Aquarium,” Hillgarth said. “So everyone can see it.”

McArthur next called to the podium her long-time friend and mentor Richard Harden, who with 30 years of service to SIO, is a living legend among aquarium volunteers. He was presented a Birch Aquarium kelp-tank baseball cap that McArthur took into space as part of her clothing allotment. Harden accepted the cap and immediately donated it to SIO. Both the cap and the Tonga Trench rock will be placed on display at the Birch Aquarium sometime next year.

The program also included stories and footage of Atlantis mission STS-125, the fifth and final launch to service the Hubble Space Telescope. McArthur was the only woman among the seven-member crew. She operated the remote manipulator system, a robotic arm critical to tethering and stabilizing Hubble during repairs.

Training began in August 2007 for the May 2009 mission.

“We had a big task and a big list of things to repair,” McArthur said. “We trained for hundreds of hours but things come up.”

Among unforeseen challenges once Hubble repairs began: frozen bolts, stripped screws, and a stuck handrail that NASA engineers eventually advised astronauts to simply pull off with brute force.

The crew succeeded in replacing scientific instruments, batteries weighing 450 pounds, gyroscopes and installing a new computer. The telescope was now in the best shape of its 19-year life and is expected to keep transmitting stunning and scientifically important images back to earth for at least another five years.

Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.