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Engineering students interview NASA astronauts about challenges of living in space

Megan McArthur, a NASA astronaut and UCLA alumna, spoke from the International Space Station to two UCLA students Friday. (Screen capture by Noah Danesh/Daily Bruin)

By Noah Danesh

May 11, 2021 12:44 p.m.

Two UCLA students called into the International Space Station on Friday to interview Megan McArthur, a UCLA alumna and NASA astronaut, about her current mission and life in space.

Anneliese Peterson, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student, and Anil Nair, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, interviewed NASA astronauts McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, who were aboard the International Space Station. The interview was facilitated by NASA’s mission control center in Houston via Skype.

McArthur, who graduated from UCLA in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, was selected to be a NASA astronaut in 2000. She is now a pilot for the SpaceX Crew-2 mission, which launched to the space station April 23.

[Related: Graphics: Exploring NASA’s Artemis Program]

To prepare for the mission, the astronauts spent many hours in a SpaceX simulator, McArthur said. They would focus especially on how the countdown and launch would go, learning the different cues and signals that would come from the control team. In the hours before launch, the crew on the rocket would keep themselves entertained between serious conversations.

“The preparation doesn’t come on that day – the preparation is something that you’ve been doing for years,” McArthur said.

McArthur’s first spaceflight was aboard the space shuttle in 2009 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. For this year’s mission, she traveled to space on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which was a very different experience – unlike the space shuttle, the Crew Dragon only carries astronauts and does not carry cargo. While the 1970s space shuttle had a cockpit with an array of buttons similar to an airplane, the Crew Dragon uses touchscreens.

Peterson said she and Nair had tried to ask unique questions that had not been asked before to the astronauts during the live, 20-minute interview.

The students asked the astronauts what change they would make if tasked with designing the next iteration of the space station – a question that the astronauts appreciated.

“That’s a good one, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that question before,” Kimbrough said.

Kimbrough responded that he would want more storage space on the space station since it is packed with cables throughout the cabin. He added that the current design of the space station is special because it is made up of different modules that were designed to attach together in space.

There are many little challenges every day on the space station, McArthur said, and there is a team on Earth who think of creative solutions for the astronauts. She added that the team is sometimes more familiar with the hardware than the astronauts and are able to think outside of the box to help guide the astronauts through problems.

McArthur said during the interview that her UCLA education and experiences prepared her for becoming a NASA astronaut.

“Working together effectively as a team was something that I learned how to do first at UCLA,” McArthur said. “That’s been a huge part of my education and my career.”

McArthur also discussed changes she has seen as a woman astronaut, with an increase in the number of women in technical jobs and leadership roles during her time at NASA.

“The environment is such that everyone is encouraged to speak up and to bring their ideas to the forefront, and I hope that that’s how young people – men and women – feel when they’re coming to work at NASA today,” McArthur said.

Peterson said she was very excited when she learned she would have the opportunity to speak with McArthur while she was in space.

In the days leading up to the interview, the students spent hours preparing and developing questions for the astronauts. They set up a video conferencing system at a lab in the Engineering VI building – testing the laptop, putting up a backdrop and preparing lights.

A collaboration between UCLA and McArthur in space had been in discussion for months, said Christine Lee, executive director of communications at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Lee said she wanted students to be the ones who conducted the interview once the event was set. Mitchell Spearrin, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, recommended the students who would conduct the interview, Lee said.

Spearrin recommended Peterson and Nair, who both worked with The Rocket Project at UCLA, a student engineering team that teaches rocket engineering and develops rockets to launch to space.

Prior to the event, McArthur tweeted an image of UCLA she took from the space station.

“They are on such a busy mission and every single minute of their days is scheduled,” Peterson said. “The fact that she was looking forward to it and thinking about it felt good.”

McArthur, who wore a UCLA shirt during the interview, tweeted her thoughts after the event.

“Enjoyed this chat with 2 fun Bruins from @UCLAengineering,” McArthur said. “Some good questions we had never heard before! Thanks for visiting with us aboard @Space_Station!”

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