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Megan McArthur on Fear and Confidence

by S. Jack Heffernan Ph.D

How does an astronaut prepare physically and mentally to launch into space? NASA astronaut Megan McArthur, who traveled to the International Space Station in April 2021 as part of the SpaceX Crew-2 mission, shares stellar life lessons on how to cultivate the resolve to do incredible things through preparation — and a dash of bravery. A rare glimpse at what it takes to literally shoot for the stars. (This virtual conversation, hosted by TEDWomen curator Pat Mitchell, was recorded in November 2020.)

Pat Mitchell: Welcome, Megan. 

Megan McArthur: Hello, Pat, thank you for having me. 

PM: Let’s go with the question that I think is probably coming up for many of us. This is unusual. Husband and wife, met during your training, and in the year that you got married, you both flew into space, separately. You, on the Hubble Telescope mission and Bob on the mission to construct the space station. And ironically, if your mission had gone awry or needed help, Bob was assigned to be on the rescue craft. You know, launch day is for all of us a time of great excitement, yes. But also anxieties about the risk and the fear we might feel inside just watching. How do you prepare for launch day? 

MMA: Well, Pat, one of the most important things to focus on for me was really preparing my son and making sure that he was ready and that he enjoyed the experience of watching his father launch and complete this mission that he’d been training for, really for most of our son’s life. So when we walked out onto the roof of the launch control center and we could see the rocket off in the distance and were lining up against the rail, ready for the countdown, and of course, I got my arms around him and we hear, “Three, two, one, liftoff.” And then we see the rocket carrying his father you know, jumping off the launch pad. And for me, it was this moment of just an outpouring of feeling and emotion that had been with me for such a long time. And I’m crying and I’m laughing and I’m just shaking. And so I had to let go of my son, who was fine, by the way, he was completely fine. And I’m covering up my mouth because I don’t know what kind of sounds I’m going to make with this complete terror and this complete joy at this moment. 

And thinking about what it took to get there. My husband, you know, an accomplished astronaut, an experienced Air Force flight test engineer, he had formerly been the chief astronaut. And I’ve watched him launch into space twice before. And it’s been terrifying every time. Why is that? You know, of course, I love my husband, but it’s more than that. It’s that I love my husband, and right now I can’t do anything at all to impact the situation. I’m standing on a rooftop. I have no job. I have no way to contribute. 

And so that’s where for me the fear comes from is that feeling of helplessness. And so, over and over in my life, I’ve seen, of course, that training and preparation can get us ready for an event like that, but it’s having the input, having the ability to impact your situation that is what removes the fear and balances it for you. So the education, the experience, you have to have that, but also having a voice, having an input, having a seat in the cockpit is what allows you to leave that fear behind. 

PM: But what about your son, Megan? He won’t be there. He’ll be on the ground watching mommy take off into space just as he watched his dad who returned safely. But have you taken special preparations for him to see mommy doing the same? 

MMA: Well, his first reaction when learning that mommy was going to go into space first, he told me, “No, mommy, you can’t go.” That was his very first response. And then as he got more comfortable with the idea, you know, his dad went up and came back and then he said, “Well, OK, you can go for 30 days, but 180 days, that’s too much. You can’t, you can’t go for that long.” He’s also obviously seen his father go through all of this. And so for him, it’s become this normal thing. This is a normal thing that mommy and daddy do. We’ll read stories back and forth while I’m here in Russia over video conference. And I was given the idea to fill a jar with chocolate kisses and then he can have a kiss from mommy every day that I’m gone. So he likes that idea very much. 

PM: Well, just to be clear, it’s a great message that this young man is getting about mommy and daddy doing the same job, isn’t it? And I just want to bring forward a quote from the SpaceX leader Gwynne Shotwell, who was asked about your going, and your husband’s going, and she was questioned about your flying in the same pilot seat or spacecraft as your husband. And here was part of her answer: “I’d like to point out that, you know, Megan is first and foremost an astronaut when it comes to our perspective.” 

MMA: Well, I did want to reach through the screen and high-five Ms. Shotwell when she said that, I very much appreciated that remark. You know, it has changed for me over the years, the first time I flew in space I was married, but I was not yet a parent. And both my husband and I came to NASA as single people and we met and married, of course, at NASA. It’s a different thing to take on as a family that you’re doing this thing that’s for yourself. It’s also kind of for the greater good. The notion of exploration and discovery is something to engage in. And I think that that example, you know, for my son to see that his parents are engaged in this thing, that, yes, it takes us away from him, but these are important things to do. 

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