Megan McArthur, who spent time under the sea as a Scripps Institution oceanographer, rocketed into space Monday with the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on a mission to repair NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
It is the fifth and final maintenance operation on the Hubble aimed at extending its life through 2014 before the shuttle fleet is retired.
It is McArthur's first foray into space. A Hawaii native, she graduated from UCLA in 1993 with an aerospace engineering degree before getting her doctorate in oceanography from UCSD in 2002.
Atlantis' 11-day mission is expected to include five spacewalks so astronauts can make upgrades to the telescope.
William Hodgkiss, a Scripps professor who was a faculty adviser to McArthur, was one of several VIPs on hand to watch the shuttle blastoff on a giant screen in the auditorium of the newly opened Scripps Seaside Forum at 8610 Kennel Way.
He described his former student as being enthusiastic and committed, as well as flexible.
A juggling act
"She actually was accepted into the space program before she finished her graduate work here," he said, "so she was juggling joining the space program and trying to finish her dissertation, but it worked out."
Hodgkiss also commended McArthur for her perseverance.
"What are your chances of being accepted as an astronaut?" he asked. "One in a million? One in 10 million? She stayed with her dream. To have one of our own grad students be part of a shuttle flight is a big thrill for all of us."
Also in the auditorium was Daniel Goldin, former NASA administrator who talked about McArthur's role in the mission as "the real fix-it person."
"She's going to be responsible for operating a 50-foot robotic arm to help the astronauts position objects so they can perform fix-it operations on the telescope," he said. "Also, she's going to take that robotic arm with the camera and look underneath the shuttle to see if there's any scratches in the thermal pile which protects the orbiter."
Goldin said the telescope "has the capability of looking back into time 13 billion years, almost to when the first star started to twinkle." The Hubble, every so many years, needs to be serviced, just like your house. Batteries break down. Electronics have problems."
He stressed the importance of the Hubble mission: "It gives us a sense of different physical phenomenon: black holes, planet formation. These are things that are very important to future generations living here on this planet."
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