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Ask Anything: 10 questions with NASA Astronaut Bill McArthur Jr.

Posted October 6, 2009

Editor's Note: NASA Astronaut Bill McArthur Jr. was born in Laurinburg. He is a veteran of four space flights and has logged 224 days, 22 hours, 28 minutes and 10 seconds in space, including 24 hours and 21 minutes in four space walks.


What did it feel like to walk in space? – Melissa Taylor, Raleigh

It was an absolute thrill to walk in space. Very often in space, we get to view what’s outside through a window. It’s much like going to the beach and staying inside and looking through the window. Maybe you see the beautiful beach and surf, but it’s completely different when you go outside. You have a panoramic view, you pick up things in your peripheral vision. It’s simply breath taking. I was floating out on my back, looking straight up. My first words were “It’s huge.” The sense of grandeur is magnified when you can go outside.


When I was a young girl in the mid 60s I loved reading the series about Mrs. Pickerell. She was an old lady who hid aboard a spaceship and went into space. From that moment on I was intrigued with space. What prompted your love of space? – Debbie Persinger, Fuquay-Varina

Debbie, my love of space really developed and grew out of a fascination with anything that could fly. I loved spaceships, airplanes and especially helicopters. In second grade, when I was supposed to be studying, I would get a piece of paper and draw spaceships.

I later became a student at West Point and majored in aerospace engineering. I went to flight school and became a helicopter pilot. I loved aerospace engineering, how things fly and how to make them fly. To me, it was just a wonderful merging of the things I was really interested in.

I realized in 1978 that an army major named Bob Stewart was the first army pilot selected as an astronaut. It opened my eyes. It seemed to me that becoming an astronaut would be apex of my career. I began to pursue that goal. I was selected in 1990. This was the seventh application I submitted. NASA wasn’t actually doing selections in some years.

I remember going into the office and one of my colleagues who was also interviewing for the astronaut office gave me a hug and said something very supportive. Then I got call from a gentleman I worked for and he told me I had been selected. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone except my family.

I went to the local elementary school where my wife was teaching and my two daughters were students. I told them I would take them out of school (if I was selected). The way we celebrated was we washed the car. My neighbor wondered why I was not at work and my children were out of school washing the car.


Is there any down time aboard the shuttle? If so, how do the astronauts use this time? I guess writing letters home would be fruitless. – Dave Clarke, Wake Forest

Dave, because it requires so much effort and admittedly it’s very expensive to launch a shuttle, there’s little down time. If a mission is long enough, over 10 days long, we try to schedule half a day of free time for the crew. They can do whatever they like. They can just look out the window. Taking pictures of earth from space is very popular. We’ll often grab a camera.

The international space station is a little different. It’s normally two to six months long, so astronauts get more free time. I would volunteer to do additional experiments on board. We spent most of our time operating and maintaining the station.

You can write letters and send them down if a shuttle comes to visit. We brought letters from Mir cosmonauts. We do have e-mail in orbit. It’s very much like going on a business trip with your laptop. In space, we can send and receive e-mail two or three times a day. We hit send and it goes into an outbox where it just waits and then two to three times a day you connect to the Internet. Then the messages get sent.

We transmit large data files. We have to send those through one of our communication satellites. While doing that, we can’t use e-mail until we are assured we have high band-width. The space shuttle is traveling so rapidly, our satellite management is much more challenging than one on the ground.


I know that space travel can put the human body through a lot of stress. What kind of medical testing does an Astronaut have to go through to be physically and mentally fit for duty? – Christopher Cich, Raleigh

Well Christopher, the stress that’s on your body in space is sort of a different nature than you’d think it might be. When we walk on the ground or exercise, we’re working against gravity. That’s why bodybuilders lift heavier and heavier weights. The workload of just moving around in space is very different. There are physical changes.

In no gravity, you aren’t getting as much blood to your calves and feet. Fluid migrates up to your chest, neck and head and can cause discomfort. Bones can lose calcium. It is stressful. We want to ensure through very rigorous medical testing that anyone who goes to space is healthy.

Access to medical treatment is extremely limited. It would be a crisis if you were to have a heart attack in space, for example. We encourage astronauts to have a regular program for physical fitness and exercise. Short duration trips are not as mentally and physically stressful.

Before I spent six months at the space station, I would meet once a month with a psychiatrist. We talked about my family a lot. He was trying to determine if I had any psychological or emotional vulnerability. I also talked with him every other week while I was at the space station. The nice thing if you’re floating in space is you don’t have to lie on a couch.


Seeing the Earth from up there and realizing what a rare thing our planet is, do you believe there are other planets that could support intelligent life? – Timothy Capwell, Raleigh

Well Timothy, that’s certainly a challenging question. I look out, as we all do, and you see the stars. The universe may not be infinite, but it’s so close to it that it’s hard to comprehend the vastness. Even if a small percentage of them have planets, it just seems obvious that there must be other planets that could support life in a form we recognize. It would be somewhat arrogant to assume there cannot be other life forms in other worlds. I think there must be planets that can support life. I hope someday we find the answer to that.


When NASA returns to the moon, what type of research will be done and how would we benefit from it? – Willie Collins, Fayetteville

Willie, when we return, one of the primary objects is to develop technology to go to the moon and much further to other plants like Mars and live and work there. Going to space triggers the benefit of technology in ways we can’t even imagine. That has inspired us to live and work in space. Through satellites, we understand the weather much better and we can help farmers become more effective and more efficient. Medical technology has also been vastly advanced.


With all the space particles, how can NASA send probes through vast distances in space without colliding with something? I was reading where transit times to distant objects is measured in years, so how can they travel in a straight line without hitting something? – William Miller, Holly Springs

William, we describe that as the “big sky, little bullet" theory. Space is so vast that most of it is empty. Therefore, the odds of hitting something, especially when you get far from earth, is much, much lower. Is the chance zero? No, it’s not. Orbital debris, junk in space, or micro-meteoroids collide with the space shuttle and with the space station. So far, we’ve never experienced any major damage. Although, I have to replace four windows on every space shuttle for every mission. We will periodically see holes the size of a 22 bullet. There is stuff out there and for orbiting around the earth, we will maneuver to avoid those.


Why is it not possible to visit and/or land on other planets? – Staci Parker, Lillington

Staci, the short answer is it is quite possible to visit and land on other plants. We have the technology to do that today. We don’t have a way to do it safely and efficiently as possible. We have things on the drawing board. How do you have enough water and food? How do we recycle condensation when we exhale our breath or recycle urine? If we figure that out, then the requirement to carry water goes down. We have sent rockets to other planets. We have landed objects on Mars. We could do the same things for people, but we need to advance the technology a little bit. It will happen. I’m not optimistic it will happen in my lifetime. I think it will happen within (the younger generation’s) lifetime.


My 6-year-old son (future astronaut) would like to know if you can feel the cold of space even through your spacesuit when you were on your spacewalks. Mom wants to know if you sign autographs & do you meet admiring little boys??? – Amy Williams, Princeton

Amy, indeed, I do sign autographs, and I love meeting admiring future astronauts. To your young 6-year-old, yes, indeed you can feel the cold of space through your space suit. It’s a little misleading though. Space is a perfect vacuum. It’s neither hot nor cold, but objects in space become very hot or cold.

The suit regulates body temperature very nicely, but if you’re holding on to a part of your spaceship that has been in the shadows, it is very cold. We have electric heaters in the fingertips. If you are in sunlight, what you touch can be very, very warm. We can put a reflecting coating or white blanket material on the outside of components of the spacecraft to help with the temperature.

For autographs, send a letter to:

(Astronaut’s name) – NASA
2101 NASA Parkway
Mail code CB, Johnson Space Center
Houston, TX 77058


I always wanted to be an astronaut, but for a variety of health reasons, I will be unable to pursue such a career. My question is: Do you think spaceflight is something that will be accessible to the masses within our lifetimes? Thanks, and I am captivated by the work you guys do! – Ray, Raleigh

Thank you very much, Ray. It’s always an honor to answer questions from folks who are inspired by the space program. In my lifetime, I don’t think we’ll see spaceflight become as routine as commercial aviation, but in (younger generation’s) lifetime, I think it will become available to the masses. It’s very expensive because it’s very, very difficult to do. Hopefully we’ll see parallels to the commercial aviation industry. I think we’ll see, over time, a commercial space flight industry develop. I think it’s inevitable.

It’s always a delight to be able to answer questions from folks back home. You know, I talked about drawing spaceships as a child. Now, I sit in my office and I still draw spaceships. It’s nice to never have been required to grow up!

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  • timothycapwell Oct 14, 2009


  • WinnieFan Oct 7, 2009

    Awesome interview! The best one I've read......

  • scarletindurham Oct 6, 2009

    Very cool Q&A, one of the best I've seen so far.