Learning to Fly

Female astronaut in blue flight suitI was still in graduate school when I was selected to be an astronaut, so I came to NASA fresh out of UC San Diego. I suddenly found myself surrounded by classmates, some of whom had many years of operational experience in the military. It was very much drinking from the fire hose right from the get-go: lots and lots of information about the space shuttle systems, the space station systems, all of it taught with an operational philosophy: “How do we operate spacecraft? Operate robotic arms? Operate extravehicular mobility suits? How do we do these dangerous things and do them well and efficiently?”

We have training programs for that, obviously, but I also learned a lot from my classmates and crewmates. It’s an evolving process, learning how to do these big, bold endeavors, and it’s something at which you can always get better. We fly T-38 jets, for instance, to experience an operational environment on a regular basis and become comfortable making decisions in a rapidly changing situation. And of course, there are the many simulations of the space missions that we do, with different variables and challenges.

In many ways, it reminds me of my time at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, especially when it came to ocean-going research. In that environment, too, you’re operating in conditions that can potentially be dangerous, deploying instruments or collecting samples for research, or especially with scuba diving—where you have to be keenly aware of your environment and how to operate safely. I was very appreciative that I got to learn those things from the people at Scripps, many of whom had been doing it for years and years.

So after 20 years at NASA, now I’m one of those people who have been doing it for years. And I have to say, the biggest thing I have learned here is just being ready to always be learning. To show up always ready to do what you do, but do it better. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at it, tomorrow is always new, and there’s always something more to learn.


Megan McArthur, PhD ’02, is commander of the NASA SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station, which is scheduled to launch in April 2021 and return in fall 2021