On a Friday morning in October, Bill McArthur was four days and 245 miles into a bicycle ride across North Carolina when he and his cycling companions stopped for a break in Rowland, a one-stoplight town near the South Carolina border that calls itself the “Home of a Thousand Friends.”
Rowlanders welcomed the caravan of 700 riders in the small parking lot of the town’s train depot with food trucks, sports drinks, snack tables, and a medical tent. McArthur dismounted from his lightweight bike, leaned it against the depot, and took a few steps into the parking lot where cyclists were milling and nibbling.
A woman stepped toward him and said, “You’re the astronaut?”
Yes, he said.
She wondered if he would meet a few of the town’s leaders. McArthur, 71, quickly fell into conversation with Mayor Robert McDougald, an Army veteran who had noted the cyclist’s black-and-gold Army bike jersey. The mayor soon discovered that a man wearing a Marines jersey was McArthur’s brother, and McDougald began quizzing them about their military experience.
Later, McDougald recalled the conversation with zest. “We hit it off immediately,” he told me. “They were both such good-spirited men.”
But he was stunned when I told him that Bill McArthur is a retired astronaut who lives outside Houston—and that he grew up a few miles away in the Robeson County farming community of Wakulla, near Red Springs, before heading to West Point and eventually to NASA.
“There was no arrogance about him,” McDougald said. “To me, he was just a normal guy.”
McArthur might seem like a normal guy, but there was nothing normal about the career of the former test pilot. He logged more than 9,000 hours in 41 different air- and spacecraft, performed four spacewalks, and commanded a six-month mission to the International Space Station.
He did it with a team-first ethos and such a high level of preparation and competence that one of his fellow astronauts, Brian Duffy, told The Assembly, “There’s no doubt in my mind why he was selected as an astronaut.”
The writer Tom Wolfe once described another North Carolinian, the stock-car driver Junior Johnson, as “a backwoods boy with guts who made good.”
Wolfe, who would later write a best-selling book about the early American astronauts, said it was the rural Southern code of honor and courage that produced so many NASCAR drivers.
Like them, McArthur likes to do hard, dangerous things, often at a fast speed.
“I have a very high level of risk tolerance as part of my personality,” he told me, coolly and analytically. “I chose a career early on that entails some level of risk.”
He was an offensive lineman on the Red Springs High School football team, and graduated first in his class in 1969. At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., he ranked fourth and received a degree in applied science and engineering.
After a tour with the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, he entered Army Aviation School, and was the top graduate in that class. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech, and rose to the rank of colonel.
In hindsight, he might have seemed like an obvious choice to be an astronaut, but the competition is steep; less than 1 percent of applicants are accepted. McArthur applied seven times.
He was finally selected in 1990. He flew three shuttle missions—on Columbia, Atlantis, and Discovery—each of which lasted eight to 14 days.
His final space flight was on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as commander of Expedition 12 to the International Space Station, a mission of nearly 190 days that ended in April 2006. One of those days started with Paul McCartney singing “Good Day Sunshine” live as a concert audience of 15,000 watched McArthur and Russian cosmonaut Valery Tokarev on a big screen.
On the Discovery mission in 2000, he performed two space walks with Leroy Chiao; the two were in the same astronaut class and knew each other well.
If ever two human beings need to have trust in one another, it must be those who walk 250 miles above Earth. Chiao said McArthur was always organized and squared away. “Bill stands out in my mind as one of those guys you could count on,” Chiao said. “If I needed to go to him for help, I knew I could.”
On that mission with a crew of seven, McArthur played two other important roles, making him an astronaut triple-threat. He was the flight engineer, seated behind the commander and the pilot, who both “have a face full of instrument panel,” said Duffy, the mission commander. (The flight engineer plays a troubleshooting role for the other two. It’s a vital job, particularly during launch, reentry, and landing.)
McArthur also operated Discovery’s robotic arm, helping to expand the space station for its first crew of six-month residents. (He later became one.) “He had a hand in all parts of the mission,” Duffy said, “more than me as commander.”
Duffy called McArthur a “blood brother” and “rock-solid, dependable, alert, aware, professional.” He told a story to illustrate: As Discovery was undocking from the space station for its return voyage, the crew was running late and scrambling. Duffy was about to throw a certain switch.
“STOP!” McArthur yelled.
The entire crew froze.
If you throw that switch, McArthur told Duffy, it will cause problems. And he was right. It wouldn’t have been deadly, Duffy said, but it would have taken several orbits around Earth and perhaps a full day to get back on track.
“Bill saved my bacon,” Duffy said. “I’ll never forget that.”
McArthur, Chiao, and Duffy were astronauts during a renaissance of the American space program. The 1986 Challenger disaster, in which the crew of seven died shortly after takeoff, devastated NASA. But the program rebounded, and a decade later was flying five to seven missions a year.
Duffy is especially proud of that Discovery mission, known as STS-92. It was the last crew to go to the space station before the first six-month crew launched.
McArthur and his teammates enabled the next generation of space flight by expanding the space station, giving NASA a place to go. Since that mission, there’s been a continuous human presence in space.
“I still feel pretty proud of that,” Duffy said.
McArthur took up cycling about 10 years ago. His brother Heinz, who lives in Cary, introduced him to the sport.
For the first six months, Heinz knew more about cycling than his brother. But then, as he often does, Bill immersed himself in the subject, became an expert, and trained hard.
In 2012, Bill joined Heinz on the Mountains to Coast Ride, an annual journey across North Carolina in which cyclists typically cover 65 to 75 miles a day for seven days. The route changes every year, but always takes riders along back roads and through small towns, ending on a Saturday at the coast.
Many riders camp out at the end of the day’s route, usually at a park and recreation center with several ballfields to accommodate them; some stay in hotels or with friends or relatives. The pack of cyclists, sometimes numbering 1,000, is like a slow-moving village.
This year was the eighth time the McArthur brothers have tackled the ride together; it was my fourth. The remnants of Hurricane Ian took away the first two days, causing us to start in Tryon instead of Lake Junaluska.
I rode with the McArthur group on the fourth day, a 68-mile jaunt roughly along the South Carolina line from Laurinburg to Whiteville, leaving one day to reach the red-carpeted finish line at Holden Beach. This year’s shortened route was 357 miles.
The ride reconnects Bill with North Carolina and with Heinz, 67, who is now retired from the Marines and a second career with IBM/Lenovo. When the day’s riding is done, the brothers usually share a tent, although this year, Bill had back problems that pushed them into hotels and a night at the home of a family friend.
The brothers banter continuously. At one rest stop, Bill said that even though he enjoyed the camaraderie of camping, he’d consider staying in hotels in the future.
Heinz teased him: “You stay in a hotel, the next thing you know, you’re riding an e-bike.” (Electric bikes are allowed, but most of the cyclists frown on them, to put it mildly.)
We left Laurinburg on Friday morning with Bill McArthur in the lead. Cyclists like to ride in lines so they can draft each other, the way NASCAR drivers do. They often take turns leading the line, which is the most demanding spot. Our group of six, which included Heinz’s wife, Cynthia, and a couple of riding friends, kept a comfortable pace of 14 to 15 miles per hour.
Bill could ride much faster. He remains at his old flying weight—192 pounds at 6 feet tall—and rides regularly in Texas. “I created a monster,” Heinz said. “He’s a freak on the bike.”
But Bill prefers to ride with the group. He likes the teamwork, which reminds him of his astronaut days. “You’re doing something challenging with a small group of people. You’re equals,” he said. “Once you start, you don’t seriously consider giving it up. You’re committed to seeing it through to the end.”
It wasn’t long before we reached a sign that welcomed us to Robeson County. Our written directions warned, “CAUTION! Rough road ahead.”
The McArthur brothers on this year’s Mountains to Coast Ride, and a sign the Wakulla community put up honoring its native son. (Cycling photo courtesy of Tony Moore; others by John Drescher)
Country roads can be charming and nostalgic, as Rodney Atkins sang in his 2011 hit, “Take a Back Road”:
It makes me wanna take a back road,
Makes we wanna take the long way home.
Put a little gravel in my travel,
Unwind, unravel all night long.
These remote roads are part of the appeal of the Mountains to Coast Ride; there’s no better way to see this lush state. But on the fourth day in the saddle, I could have used less romanticism and a smoother surface.
The relentless roughness of this secondary road, with its weathered pavement and faded painted lines, distracted from our splendid, ground-level view of Robeson’s wide-open spaces, including acre after acre of cotton fields.
Lightweight road bikes, with narrow, high-pressure tires and tiny, hard seats, aren’t made for bumpy roads. I thought: Robeson County could use a friend on the state Board of Transportation. I complained aloud about this, but Bill McArthur seemed unaffected.
When you ride down from western North Carolina and the state starts to flatten out, you think the hardest days are done. When we got to Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties, I expected nothing tougher than rolling hills.
Even if you’ve lived in North Carolina for a long time, you might forget that we have mountains—the Uwharries—in the south-central part of the state. Turns out, we still had work to do. We climbed more than 3,000 feet as we made our way through Montgomery County.
Finally, as the land flattened and we entered the Sandhills, the McArthur brothers knew they were close to home. “We did our time travel,” Bill said.
They remembered rival high schools: Ellerbe, St. Pauls, Orrum, Maxton. They remembered various swimming spots, including the Lumber River, and riding bikes around the flat county. They remembered the 900-acre farm they grew up on.
Bill McArthur has taken pieces of North Carolina with him to space. Before his first space flight in 1993, The News & Observer sent columnist Dennis Rogers to spend some time in Texas with McArthur, his wife, Cindy, who is also from Robeson County, and their two daughters.
Rogers, who was raised in Wilson and died in 2020, connected easily with people from rural or small-town backgrounds. McArthur enjoyed his company and his writing, which reminded him of home.
When he flew into space, he brought along a small North Carolina flag that he later sent to Rogers with a certificate of authenticity: “In appreciation for your friendship and contributions to preserving Tarheel culture.” On another space flight, he took a cover of a book by Rogers.
McArthur told Rogers before his first space flight that he had left Red Springs in 1969 “with a belief in my ability to succeed if I worked hard at it.” You might have limitations, he said, but you won’t know what they are until you explore them.
John Drescher, The Assembly’s contributing editor, is former executive editor of The News & Observer and a former editor at The Washington Post. Follow him @john_drescher. Reach him at email@example.com.