It wasn’t the night sky that sparked the explorer spirit in Megan McArthur ’93.
“I only made the connection between it and its possibilities when I first saw astronauts,” she says. “I realized that’s a real job that real people do.”
She would know. Today, McArthur is a NASA astronaut who has completed two space missions: the first in 2009, to service the Hubble Space Telescope aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, and the second in 2021, as Crew-2 pilot to and from the International Space Station aboard the Crew Dragon Endeavour. She’s also in rotation as the inaugural chief science officer for Space Center Houston, a role focused on the development of authentic science and space exploration learning experiences for both students and the general public.
“There’s a huge need for people to join this field and do this work, especially with new ideas and different ways of thinking,” McArthur says. “Space is not only for ‘heroes’ on a pedestal. I want everyone to connect to space at that next level: ‘I could do this, too.’”
McArthur is one of countless Bruins advancing humanity’s understanding of and exploration in space. Among her fellow astronauts are Walt Cunningham ’60, M.S. ’61; Anna Lee Fisher ’71, M.D. ’76, M.S. ’87; Jessica Watkins Ph.D. ’15; and Katya Echazarreta ’19, the first Mexican-born woman in space. While astronauts may be the most visible among the UCLA contingent, the Bruin space science story extends deep into the galaxy and beyond, spanning everything from geology and mechanics to the mysteries of weather and dark matter.
A TRILLION-DOLLAR FUTURE
Last year, the UCLA Space and Planetary Sciences, Applications, Communications, and Engineering (SPACE) Institute opened its doors, with the aim of helping the Bruin community elevate space science by fostering collaboration and innovation across campus, the general public and the private sector.
“I want the UCLA SPACE Institute to be a vehicle to ‘do good’ in the world in innovative ways,” says Jacob Bortnik, a professor of space physics and the institute’s faculty director.
One of the institute’s most striking efforts was the first-ever SPACE Economy Forecast summit, held on campus in May. With the commercial space sector economy predicted to be a trillion-dollar industry by 2040, this series serves as a counterpart to the quarterly UCLA Anderson Economic Forecast. The first summit drew hundreds of attendees, all eager to learn from and connect with the field’s faculty and leading minds.
Students continue to engage in remarkable science. In 2018, working under Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences Professor Vassilis Angelopoulos and his team, students launched ELFIN CubeSats, the first end-to-end NASA space science mission built entirely at UCLA. And Bruin alumni are reshaping the global space economy. Among them are Lars Hoffman M.B.A. ’15, vice president of national security sales at Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, and Dave Crawford ’95, vice president of engineering at Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
“We’re on the verge of achieving our dream of doing commercialized space travel for the general public,” says Crawford, a former Disney Imagineer. “Within the next decade, this company could do 400 launches in a year and put more astronauts in space than have ever been there.”
Keji Sojobi ’07 was a senior engineer at Northrop Grumman when the company was constructing the James Webb Space Telescope, the world’s most powerful such device. Her work helped build the spacecraft that launched the telescope into space, where it currently orbits the sun a million miles from Earth, sending home striking images of the universe’s early days.
“It was very emotional watching the Ariane rocket lift it into space, knowing I was one of the last people ever to touch it,” Sojobi says. “My job had been to ensure components talked to each other, worked together.” It was, she says, “a lesson I learned at UCLA — not only at the engineering school, but also in the Random Voices a cappella group. Like space travel, it is about bringing together different voices.”
SPACE FOR INSPIRATION
UCLA’s Andrea Ghez made global headlines for winning the 2020 Nobel Prize [see “The Odyssey Continues ...”], but her exceptional space science is emblematic of the rigorous study and scholarship of space that’s underway every day across campus.
One of Ghez’s co-founders of the UCLA Galactic Center Group, which is focused on transforming our understanding of black holes in the galaxy, is professor of physics and astronomy Mark Morris, who is refining the picture of the Milky Way. David Jewitt, a distinguished professor of planetary astronomy, is exploring a population of comet-like asteroids he discovered that may be related to the source of the Earth’s oceans. “The most exciting thing you discover is always the thing you don’t expect to,” Jewitt says. “That’s the beauty of astronomy — people think it’s all known, but nothing is. It’s a wide-open subject.”
Take, for example, dark matter. Never directly observed, it’s theorized to account for approximately 85% of the “stuff” in the universe. Alvine Kamaha, holder of UCLA’s Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Chair in Physical Sciences, is an active member of the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) experiment, a direct-detection dark matter project led by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Kamaha co-led the program to calibrate and ensure the integrity of the world’s largest dark matter detector.
“I’m setting up a test facility at UCLA for various projects geared toward the future generation of dark matter detectors,” she says. “The future of space science at UCLA is bright.”
With endless questions to be answered and expanses to be explored, space will continue to fire the imaginations of the UCLA community.
That includes Jean-Luc Margot, a professor of Earth, planetary, and space sciences and of physics and astronomy, who is also the lead researcher of UCLA SETI’s project, “Are We Alone in the Universe?” Drawing on the enthusiasm of all interested “citizen scientists,” the project allows participants to help classify radio signals, which will enhance the capabilities for searching for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Another “citizen scientist” initiative is being launched by Emmanuel Masongsong, program manager for UCLA’s Experimental Space Physics group. The initiative, which is called Heliophysics Audified: Resonances in Plasmas, or HARP, will crowdsource everyday volunteers — the pilot project used high school students — to comb through satellite data that’s been converted into sound and visuals. The goal is to help scientists analyze the space environment and potentially discover plasma waves, a phenomenon that is part of space weather.
“This project is a step forward in making space more accessible to all,” Masongsong says, “as anyone can use their ears to analyze the data and recognize new patterns with very little training.”
Accessibility and inclusion are crucial, adds Smadar Naoz, holder of the Howard and Astrid Preston Term Chair in Astrophysics, who has launched a new lecture series to bring speakers to UCLA from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). She hopes to secure funding to permanently establish an HBCU-UCLA Physics & Astronomy summer research bridge and graduate admissions pathway.
“So many discoveries remain to be made,” Naoz says. “I hope not only that we make them, but that the people who do so will be representative of our nation and world.”
… AND BEYOND
Looking ahead — and up, out and within — as space science and exploration move forward, the possibilities are endless.
“We just announced the crew for Artemis II, where we’ll be sending people around the moon next year. We haven’t done that since I was a baby — and then we’re going to be landing people on the moon shortly after that,” says Megan McArthur. “There are more pathways to the stars than ever, especially since we’re doing all this as an international partnership.”
That piece is especially inspiring to McArthur, who points to the International Space Station and its decades of scientific research and discovery as evidence that humanity can work increasingly collaboratively to push out further into the cosmos.
“That feeling I got when I left the space station and looked back — that sensation of being in one spacecraft and looking at another — just strengthened my belief that there’s no limit to what humans can accomplish when we work together,” she says. “The moon is not going to be the stopping point this time — it’s the stepping-off point. And I am so excited that I get to see what’s next.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.