NASA inspires Israeli youth to reach for the stars

US astronaut William McArthur shared his experiences with gifted teenagers in Jerusalem.

RETIRED NASA astronaut William McArthur, Jr. 390 (photo credit: Lihi Avidan)
RETIRED NASA astronaut William McArthur, Jr. 390
(photo credit: Lihi Avidan)
The high school pupils fiddling with their smartphones while waiting for the event to start might be forgiven for thinking man has been in space for at least a century and that the amount of brainpower, determination, expense and risk it took to get there was “no big deal.” But most of their teachers and administrators at Jerusalem’s Israel Arts and Science Academy remembered the day – July 20, 1969 – when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong put the first footprint on the moon, making “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The school event was held to mark the ninth anniversary of the Columbia space shuttle’s tragic crash, killing one of their own – Air Force pilot Col. Ilan Ramon – who perished in the spacecraft’s tragic disintegration over Texas and Louisiana. Teenagers selected from 20 schools around the country had come on February 1 to the Malha quarter campus for gifted youths to meet long-time US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut William S. McArthur, Jr.
The event was part of Israel Space Week organized by the Science and Technology Ministry and its Israel Space Agency to memorialize the fallen astronaut Ramon and hold meetings to plan the future of the local aerospace efforts.
A veteran of four space flights, the 60- year-old West Point graduate McArthur logged 224 days, 22 hours, 28 minutes and 10 seconds in space, including 24 hours and 21 minutes of extravehicular activity (EVA) time in four spacewalks.
A moving film of Ramon was shown to the pupils as a starter. But the emotional “warm-up” for the encounter with the astronaut was a surprise visit by Yitzhak Klug, the grandfather of Ro’i, one of the pupils. Klug, a fit and clear-headed engineer – now an octogenarian – wowed the pupils when he revealed that he was involved in developing parts for the Apollo 11 spacecraft. In Israel, where he transplanted his family in 1971 at the age of 40, he worked for years at Israel Aircraft Industries until his retirement.
As a young man, he was employed by Grumman Aircraft in Long Island to develop and build the Apollo’s Eagle lunar module, which was the lander portion of the spacecraft, meant to carry a crew of two from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface and back.
“I worked on two parts; one remains to this day on the moon,” he said. “I am a space engineer and a construction engineer, and I studied at Columbia University. I thought that engineers would be needed for projects on the moon as well,” Klug recalled. He went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the prestigious California Institute of Technology. “All of my children and grandchildren live, work and study in Israel,” he said proudly.
Guest of honor McArthur, who as a retired astronaut speaks to audiences around the world, was tall and straight in his NASA uniform of blue overalls. Perhaps from being cooped up in space vehicles, he was constantly in motion. The American guest was clearly pleased that many of the 500 teenagers in the auditorium were members of the Ilan Ramon Space Club, which was established by the Israel Center for Excellence in Education.
McArthur, who is today director of safety and mission assurance at Houston’s NASA Johnson Space Center, was born in July 1951 in the small southern town of Laurinburg, North Carolina. He and his wife Cynthia have two daughters and three grandchildren. Besides his Texas job and representing NASA at special events, he enjoys walking, photography and working on computers.
Used to receiving and giving orders as a Boy Scout, he completed high school, went to the tough US Military Academy at New York’s West Point, and received a bachelor of science degree in applied science and engineering in 1973. He earned his commission in the US Army, serving with the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg and attending the US Army Aviation School. Then he served tours of duty in Korea and Georgia, where in 1983 he earned a master of science degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
But, he told the Israeli teens, he had long dreamed of being an American astronaut – a dream it took a lot of stubbornness and determination to achieve.
“From time I decided to be an astronaut until I actually did it,” he said, “13 years had passed. There were several rejections. When I was finally accepted, I was so excited.”
At the age of 36, McArthur attended the US Naval Test Pilot School and was trained as an experimental test pilot. After finally being made a NASA test engineer, he was chosen as an astronaut candidate in 1990. His first spaceflight was in 1993 aboard the space shuttle STS-58, followed by the STS- 74 in 1995 and STS-92 in 2000.
McArthur has logged an impressive record of over 9,000 flight hours in 41 different aircraft and spacecraft and has received a slew of prestigious honors and awards, including the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the NASA Space Flight Medal and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal.
But after the Columbia’s disastrous end in 2003, NASA had to rethink its shuttle program, which finally concluded last year. Fortunately for McArthur, he was named to join a mission to man the International Space Station as a member of Expedition 12.
“But how was I to get there with the STS missions frozen?” he recalled for the Israeli teens. He “hitchhiked” on the Soyuz TMA- 7 and was launched, with cosmonaut Valery Tokarev, from the Yuri Gargarin base (named for the first human being to reach space) in Kazakhstan.
“We had trained together for this mission for four-and-a-half years,” he said. They docked with the space station to replace other astronauts and lived aboard the station with his Russian colleague from October 3, 2005 to April 8 April 2006.
McArthur, who was the commander and science officer, conducted two spacewalks with Tokarev during their six-month tour of duty. They also “relocated” their Soyuz spacecraft twice – becoming the first International Space Station crew to connect to every Russian docking port on it. They also became the first two-person crew to conduct a space walk in both Russian and US space suits. For almost 12 years, at least two people have always been living in space.
“The Soyuz is really small, but its layout is very similar to that of NASA’s shuttles,” McArthur said. Living there was not claustrophobic. Because there is no gravity, the astronauts can use not only the “floor” but also the “walls” and “ceiling” for their activities. Thus they didn’t feel boxed in. Going to sleep involved “sliding sideways into the bunk and tying myself in. It was so exciting to wake up and see the view.”
Regular exercise was carried out mostly by “running” on a treadmill, but to really put weight on the bones and operate the muscles, they had to tether themselves to the machine so they wouldn’t float away. “Sweat doesn’t run down your face but stays in one place, like a puddle your body,” he said.
Getting from one place to another is also not simple, as one can’t push air behind oneself like in a breaststroke in the pool, but must rather push against objects to maneuver. It’s “more like flying like Superman; with your arms extended in front of you.”
“Maintaining your health in space is a very serious matter,” the astronaut replied when asked by a pupil how he took care of himself without gravity. “The treadmill is the main way to put stress on the bones to make them stronger, because the bones lose calcium. The immune system is not as effective in space as on the ground. I felt all of these phenomena, but I was spared the space motion sickness that lots of my colleagues had felt. Usually, astronauts have to undergo a physical rehabilitation program to regain their health,” he said. “While gravity on Earth pulls the blood from your head towards your feet, the lack of gravity pulls it back. Fluid initially gives you a stuffy feeling in the head and chest, as if you have a cold. But somehow the body adapts to this situation in a few days, and you feel OK.”
The astronauts related to the pupils that the most important piece of equipment taken to space is “a pair of scissors. I had to be careful not to let it slip out of my hand so I wouldn’t have to search all over the cabin. Without it, you can’t open your bags of food.”
“Half of the foods on the menu were Russian and half American. We had a nice variety. The team also got used to the other’s culture, talking about their lives and experiences continually. How to shave while preventing the stubble from floating through the cabin was learned during training, as was brushing one’s teeth without spitting out the toothpaste. There was no sink. We had to wipe if off with a towel.”
With only two people on the mission, putting on space suits weighing 200 kilos was difficult, as the partner who is already fitted up is unable to help you. “Don’t forget to take your keys when you go out on a space walk,” the astronaut kidded. “I was outside with a TV camera that had to be installed. The view of Earth from there was spectacular, but also a very humbling experience. We always had to make sure we were tethered with steel cables to the spacecraft so it would pull us back to the space station instead of floating forever into space.”
But then, in a video clip, one saw what seemed a fully occupied space suit that was floating away. It wasn’t Valery, the audience hoped (seeing as how Bill Jr. had obviously survived).
In fact, McArthur revealed, it was an extra space suit that just took up room. “We stuffed it with dirty clothes and old towels that we wanted to throw out. We attached a radio transmitter to it and let it go. It transmitted a message in various native languages to amateur radio hams and orbited the Earth for six months.”
The two-man team also conducted numerous scientific experiments – as Ilan Ramon had done on the Columbia.
“I took photos of samples of a special liquid that consisted of two different substances. On the ground, they separated, and one sank to the bottom. We wanted to see the process of separation without gravity. And we were only the second crew to see a total eclipse of the sun from space. When we passed over the Mediterranean, we went through the shadow.”
What is the future of NASA’s space program and the international one in general?
“The space station will remain manned until 2020 or even 2028. Ilan Ramon had ‘the right stuff,’ and the program will need young people to continue – like you. NASA is developing new space vehicles, and I believe there will be new challenges involving asteroids and Mars. NASA will include Russians and Canadians on missions, and I would love to include Israel. The future is anything you want it to be.”
“The world,” he said, “has problems, and the solution is long-term. There is overpopulation, pollution, war and lots of challenges. My generation,” concluded McArthur, “will not solve them. We’ll have to leave you to solve them. I go home at night and can sleep better because I have confidence that your generation will do things we didn’t. And the main task is to make human life better. Collectively, humankind can have a profound effect on the quality of life. You have a profound responsibility.”