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August 5, 2009

5 Dangerous Jobs

In trying times, it's tempting to play it safe in your career. But here's another idea: Be bold. Meet five American women who have taken on some intensely gutsy gigs.

megan mcArthur

Megan McArthur

Photo Credit: Andrew Hetherington

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Megan McArthur, 37, Houston; astronaut and NASA mission specialist who recently went up in the shuttle Atlantis to help repair the Hubble Space Telescope

WHAT I DO: I've been at NASA for nine years, and I had my first space trip this past spring — that's a long time to wait for a flight. On the shuttle, I'm like the quarterback; when something goes wrong, I help direct actions that need to be taken. Case in point: Right after liftoff on our recent Hubble mission, we had two warning alarms, one about a computer and one about a main engine. It was my job to sort it all out. Then, up in space, I operated a robotic arm that grabbed and moved the Hubble telescope.

HOW IT FEELS TO BLAST OFF THE EARTH: It's mind-boggling to think you're traveling at 17,500 miles an hour. You'd go from New York to L.A. in 15 minutes at that rate.

WHY I DON'T FREAK OUT: We have years of training for any malfunctions, along with psychological screenings. Once, practicing for a rescue scenario, I had to sit cross-legged inside a big beach ball.

SPACE INVASION: In the shuttle, there were seven of us in a closet-sized space. But if someone was in your way, you could just fly over the guy's head. At night, we pinned our sleeping bags to the wall, floor, or ceiling, to make room for everyone. It's a weird feeling to sleep on a wall: You feel like you're going to float out of bed. But you zip yourself in, then anchor yourself with straps across your arms and legs. As for food, we're talking rehydrated lasagna or fajitas, which we had to Velcro to the wall.

STAR WARS OR STAR TREK? Old-school Star Wars: Princess Leia with cinnamon buns on her head. My husband — also an astronaut — and I walked out of the church on our wedding day to Star Wars music.

WORST PART OF THE JOB: If there's a downside to space travel, it's got to be the bathroom. It's a tiny closet with a fabric screen — that's all the privacy you get. A roaring vacuum sucks everything down.

BEST PART: Doing the things I've trained to do for so long — it's worth the wait. As a kid, I dreamed of going into space; in college, I studied aerospace engineering, then took a detour and got a Ph.D. in oceanography. So I've been to the ocean floor and to outer space. Next? I'd love to go to the moon.


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