In This Issue
Summer Bridge on Issues at the Technology/Policy Interface
July 1, 2016 Volume 46 Issue 2

An Interview with . . . Sandra Magnus

Friday, July 1, 2016

Sandra H. Magnus, engineer and former astronaut, is executive director, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

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RON LATANISION (RML): Sandy, we’re very happy to have this opportunity to talk with you. I understand you studied electrical engineering and physics at the Missouri University of Science & Technology, and then got your PhD in materials science and engineering from Georgia Tech. From there you went to McDonnell Douglas and then to NASA. How did that all occur?

SANDRA MAGNUS: Well, I’ll briefly give you my life story because that’s really what it’s all about. I was about middle school age when I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. That was my dream. But I didn’t know engineering existed, so now when I talk to people about engineering I make the point that we have to expose young people to engineering as early as possible so they know it’s actually a career choice for them. You can’t choose something you don’t know exists!

I focused on physics. Throughout middle school and especially high school I had access to the sciences—biology, chemistry, and physics—and physics resonated with me the most. I planned to get my PhD in physics and then apply to NASA.

I got to college and that’s where I discovered engineering: ‘Oh, this is cool.’ I love physics, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way because you can go anywhere with physics, but when I discovered engineering I realized you can take physics and do something with it.

Around that time I also got a little tired of being in school and wanted to see how this all worked in the real world, so I decided to get a job instead of going straight to grad school full time. I always liked electromagnets and that side of physics, as opposed to the mechanical side—I’m more of an electromagnetic quantum mechanics kind of girl as opposed to a structures kind of girl.

I got a job at McDonnell Douglas and got involved in stealth technology. That was really cool. I started doing my electrical engineering master’s at night school, because I knew I wanted to get a PhD someday and electrical engineering became interesting to me while I was in college. I had taken an electrical engineering class every semester just for fun while I was in college to learn more about it—I’m a typical nerdy engineer scientist, I totally own it.

At McDonnell Douglas I was exposed to what it takes to build an airplane—we were designing an airplane from scratch—and that got me interested in materials. So much of what we were doing—or what we could or could not do, actually—was intriguing from the viewpoint of materials. I didn’t know anything about the field of materials science before McDonnell Douglas. I liked it because it was a blend of science and engineering, physics and chemistry.

After about three years I started thinking, ‘oh, this would be fun to get my PhD in,’ so I got my PhD in materials science at Georgia Tech. Then I decided I had a pretty decent-looking resume—I’d completed my PhD, which was a goal, and I had some work experience—so I applied to NASA’s astronaut program. I was accepted and spent 16 years at NASA doing space stuff. Then I had to grow up and get a real job, which is what I do now.

But back in 1978 I was a freshman in high school and that’s the year they took the first women astronauts. I remember very clearly reading the front page of the newspaper with the announcement that women were accepted into the astronaut program and I thought, ‘wow, there’s a path.’

But I didn’t know what the path was. I knew I wanted to do it and I knew I wanted to study physics, but at that age I was still kind of clueless. I was going to go get a PhD and apply to NASA. That was as far as I had gotten.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): How did you find out what the path was?

MAGNUS: I called down to the Johnson Space Center to find out—this was before the Internet—I called and said, “Can I talk to somebody about being an astronaut?” There’s an astronaut selection office and they send you information. And when I wanted to get an application (this was before I called the Johnson Space Center and said, “I want to get an astronaut application,” and they transferred me to the astronaut selection office, which sent me an application, and I filled it out and sent it back. It’s not hard to get the information. You just have to look for it.

CHF: That’s such a delightfully low-tech approach.

MAGNUS: We didn’t have the Internet then. Now you look up on the Internet, ‘this is what it takes to be an astronaut’ and find out the minimum requirements: you have to have a bachelor’s degree in a technical or science or engineering field with three years of experience, or a master’s with two years of experience, or a PhD with zero years of experience, or you can have a medical degree. All the requirements are posted.

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RML: I was wondering about that. Obviously, science or technology experience is valuable, maybe essential. But what about when you’re on the International Space Station, for example—it’s quite a different social dynamic than when you’re in an office or a classroom. Are social skills highly evaluated in people who are candidates for the astronaut corps?

MAGNUS: This is what I tell students. NASA gets 7,000 or 8,000 applications every time they have a selection. To be competitive you need a master’s degree. You don’t need a PhD, although it certainly doesn’t hurt. They take a mix of master’s and PhDs.

The other thing they are basically looking for is well-rounded people—people who can communicate, work on teams, and learn. One of the things you have to be able to do as an astronaut is learn—you are always learning. And if you can work on teams and have good people skills, that’s all part of being a well-rounded human.

As far as living on station, you’ve trained with these people for years, you know each other—it’s like having another family. If you have siblings, think about the dynamic. You grew up with your siblings, you know each other really well—you know when they’re unhappy, when they’re frustrated, you know what makes them happy…. It’s really a matter of picking the right crews to fly together to get the right dynamics and mix of skills needed.

RML: I taught at MIT for almost 30 years, and in the materials science department some of my faculty colleagues were involved in experimentation in space—for example, in semiconductor crystal growth—so astronauts would come periodically to meet with them and talk about the relevant experiments being planned in space. I was always impressed that the astronauts I met not only were very technically capable but also had compelling personalities. I think a cross section of people in general would be unlike the cross section of astronauts that I met. One of them was Jack Schmidt, who went on to become a senator from New Mexico. So I’m wondering about the social skills and whether there is some sort of prerequisite characterization of the corps that focuses on aspects like that.

MAGNUS: I think it goes back to the fact that they’re looking for well-rounded people who can function in teams. An attractive applicant for the astronaut corps is not somebody who sat in a lab all the time. It’s someone who is open to new experiences and has a broad variety of experiences. And it doesn’t have to be just work experience, it can be hobbies too. They want people who have a well-founded desire for learning, a curiosity about things, and who can be articulate. But there’s no formal definition of must-have social skills.

It’s like any job interview: they’re looking to see if the candidate fits into the culture. For the NASA astronaut interview, there are about 15 people on the selection board (I don’t remember the exact number). You go into this room and they’ve got a stack of paper on you 2" thick because they’ve done a lot of research just to see if they want to interview you. You sit down at the table and they basically say, “Start at high school and tell us about yourself.” Of course they already know everything there is to know about you, but they want to hear how you present yourself. They want to have a conversation with you, get a feel for the kind of person you are and whether it matches the environment and the culture and what they know astronauts have to do. It’s like any job interview at that point: Do you fit into the job environment, which calls for well-rounded, articulate people who can work on a team, have a desire for learning, and are technically competent? They know you’re technically competent by the time you get there.

RML: You joined NASA in 1996. What are the most memorable experiences, high points, low points over the 16 years that you were a member of the astronaut family?

MAGNUS: Oh my gosh, I could go on for hours. I got to do so much more than I ever expected because I went in just thinking, ‘I want to fly in space.’ There’s so much more to being an astronaut than flying in space. But that really is spectacular and clearly a high point. Visiting on a shuttle and being engaged in a short-term sprint kind of mission versus living in space and being involved in more of a marathon, steady-pace kind of a mission—those are two totally different experiences and I’m very fortunate to have had both. Being a member of the last shuttle crew—what an honor that was. And I’ve never been so incredibly busy—there were four of us and we had a lot of stuff to do. It was just nuts, it was like helmet fire the whole time.

Another high point was getting to fly and learning how to fly jet airplanes as a civilian. They taught us how to fly T-38s. I never expected to get to do that, because astronauts fly in space. Well, guess what? You get to fly airplanes too, and that’s really cool.

I lived under water for a week in the Aquarius habitat as part of a NEEMO mission.1 I didn’t know that was involved in being an astronaut. I lived under water! That’s way cool.

I got to spend a huge amount of time working with international partners by being involved in the space station. I hit the right time to be an astronaut because it was so exciting. One of my first jobs was in Russia, in 1998 just out of astronaut candidacy school. I worked with the Russians and the other international partners to set up how we’re going to operate on the space station, set up the procedures, come up with the lexicon to translate words back and forth. Something that simple was really important. It was at times very frustrating, at times very challenging because we were charting new paths and forging new relationships, but also very rewarding and exciting.

It was also really rewarding to work as a Capcom [capsule communicator] in mission control for the very start of the space station program, getting to set up procedures and help train the control room on what it takes to go from shuttle mode to station mode, where you’re not sprinting and you’re in a marathon.

The Columbia accident was a very low point. There were several classmates on that mission. That was really hard. But the thing that was very impressive was to see the incredibly complex, very elegant, very efficient systems engineering approach taken across all of NASA related to all aspects of that accident, to get us back to flying.

I could go on and on. It was an incredible experience. I was always learning new things, which was really fun.

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CHF: Speaking of learning, and going back to your collaboration with the Russians, was there any language training and cultural training?

MAGNUS: I had four years of German in high school, a semester of German and a semester of Russian as an undergrad, and at Georgia Tech I took two years of German, two years of Russian, and six months of Spanish. I like languages. So I came to NASA with some Russian language and didn’t have to start from scratch. I also had a Russian teacher and at least two hours a week the whole time I was there, except when I was in training and had six hours a week, although I substituted two hours of that for Japanese and I ended up studying Japanese for a year as well. I’ve forgotten most of that so I can’t claim Japanese anymore.

CHF: Do all astronauts study Russian?

MAGNUS: All cosmonauts study English, all European astronauts study Russian (they already have English), and the Japanese, bless their hearts, they study both.

RML: Do astronauts across the globe keep in contact with one another? Do you have contact with not only the US astronauts you kind of grew up with but also the Russian cosmonauts and the other folks who were on the mission?

MAGNUS: Yes. We have a professional society called the Association of Space Explorers and there’s a once a year get-together. Not everybody goes every year but those of us who are still in the aerospace industry see each other. I run into Sergei Krikalev a lot. I see Jerry Ross every now and then. I see Chiaki Mukai from Japan a lot, and Takao Doi from Japan. I run into Chris Hadfield every now and then.

It’s a very small community so we all know each other, and Houston has an astronaut reunion every couple of years for whoever wants to come. It’s like any other set of business associates. You keep loosely in touch and then you have touch points.

RML: What fraction of the population of astronauts, cosmonauts, and the like are women?

MAGNUS: Ten percent internationally, 20 percent US.

CHF: Do you mind my asking, what prompted you to leave your dream career?

MAGNUS: This was hard. The shuttle retired and the number of people they needed to fly missions went down from 35–40 a year to 4. The shuttles required crews of 5–7 people and we flew 5–7 shuttle crews a year during the height of the shuttle program while we were assembling the space station. There are 6 people at a time on the station, where you stay for six months, so that’s 12 people a year—6 Russians, and the United States has 3 or 4 of the remaining 6 slots. That’s based on the memorandums of understanding established between the international partners that defines how we work together and contribute to the station.

So the US needs went down to 3 or 4 astronauts per year. Since I was on the last shuttle mission in 2011, I started reevaluating what does the rest of my career look like? I was 47 or 48 at the time. I could get back in line for the station, which at the time had a commitment from the partners to operate through 2020. I suspected that it will go longer but I only had the data to 2020. I calculated that between 2012 and 2020 there were 17 unassigned slots to fly on station. Looking around the office I could see there were more than 17 people with less flight experience than I had, and quite a few of them had never flown yet and so were probably in line ahead of me. On the other hand, I could be eligible for a station commander slot, but that might not happen until 2017, 2018, 2019. And it’s possible the station will continue to 2024, which would open up some more slots. So if I stuck around long enough, I could probably fly again some time between 2017 and 2021.

If I stayed to try and fly again that meant the rest of my career would probably be at NASA, because that’s a 10-year commitment—you’re not done with the mission when you come home, you’ve got another year or so of activities related to closing out the mission. So if I’m going to fly again it’s another 10 years at NASA, then I’ll be 58, almost 60, and I’ll retire and do something else.

I thought about that. Here’s what happens when you’re not training to fly and you’re waiting for an assignment. You get a technical job. For example, one of my technical jobs was to go to Russia and work on getting ISS operations off the ground as I described earlier. Another was to be a Capcom. Another was to lead the return to flight for the office. For one of my technical jobs I worked with the Canadians on the special purpose dexterous manipulator robot, and for another I helped the science community design experiments. I had a variety of technical jobs over the years. I had done almost all of them.

That meant that if I was going to stay and potentially fly again, I was going to be doing work I’d already done and it wasn’t going to be very challenging for me and I wasn’t going to be learning. I had an assignment as deputy chief of the office; that was new and probably could have given me about 2 years of interesting and challenging work. Then I would have had 4 to 6 or 8 years of going back into the technical world doing stuff I already felt like I understood.

So I had to make a strategic decision about what was really important for my life. Do I stay here for 10 years just to fly one more time—maybe, not guaranteed—and not be in an environment where I’m challenging myself on a day-to-day basis, which makes me kind of crabby? Do I choose to be kind of unhappy on a daily basis in order to fly in space one more time which is super-wow neat!

What happens when you think about leaving is that word gets out and you start getting phone calls from people who want you to do stuff. This opportunity came up at AIAA. I had gotten other phone calls about other opportunities, none of which I thought were good (we can talk about how I decided what good or bad was in a minute), but the AIAA opportunity came up and it checked off a lot of boxes of things that I thought might be interesting to do. So it was a strategic decision but also an extremely emotional one.

I had to disconnect from my emotions because I am an astronaut. Astronauts fly in space. I always wanted to be an astronaut. It’s who I am. How could I put myself in a position where I never get to go to space again? It was really hard. But in the end it was a strategic decision.

RML: AIAA is an interesting organization, from my perspective at least, in the sense of its views on the future of aerospace. What are your thoughts on that—where do you see things heading? I know there have been conversations in this country about the establishment of what would be called the US Air and Space Force to be something of a supplement to the current Air Force, and hypersonic vehicles are a part of that. Is that a likely reality or where do you see the future of space in terms of the US position?

MAGNUS: We can talk about the space side and the aviation side because it’s all kind of linked now. Here’s how I like to describe what’s going on.

For 50 years the government has been investing in space—in the technologies, the workforce, the knowledge development, the equipment, the operations and understanding for how to go to space—and we finally got to a point where the baseline level of knowledge is so fundamental that college students are building cubesats and launching them and operating them out of their own mission control rooms. That was unheard of when I was in college.

That level of knowledge, the dissemination of knowledge, and the evolution of technology have all been critical to get us where we are today. Technology has developed to the point that space is accessible to more people at many levels of experience, such as college students, for example. Not only is the baseline knowledge there but also the operational experience and the vocabulary—just think about the rising tide lifting all boats, where the tide is the level of foundational knowledge and enabling technology. Couple that with the fact that there are some people with huge amounts of money who are excited about space and willing to invest in business ideas that are space related, and the result is the entrepreneurial and creative energy occurring in the industry today.

Investors feel they have enough data to build a business case—which admittedly is still murky, but the risk/reward equation is tipping toward the realization that ‘hey, there’s potential reward here.’ So the entrepreneurial community, which tends to be more active in the US than anywhere else in the world, is willing to invest in it. And the government is willing to facilitate that.

So after 50 years of government investment, some nongovernmental activity is starting for all these reasons. And that’s healthy, because ideally you want government investment to lead to the furthering of an industry, the founding of an industry, the creation of more jobs, and so forth.

Still, even though we’ve got 50 years of knowledge, and wonderful technology, and people willing to invest, this is not easy. You don’t just wake up in the morning and create a space industry that’s non-government-based in a day. It could take a decade, or 15 or 20 years—and we’re about 5 to 7 years in.

We’re in a transition period, which is actually very interesting. We’re all trying to figure it out. I think of it as an expanding bubble with the government at the leading edge of the bubble. The government leads the bubble off the planet, and private industry fills in the back side of the bubble, which is now on low Earth orbit. And as private industry is doing that, government—NASA—is able to expand the bubble beyond low Earth orbit, which is exciting. We’re continuing to push the frontier of human and technical knowledge and that’s something government has to do.

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RML: What is AIAA’s role in what you’re describing?

MAGNUS: AIAA’s role as a professional society is to be what I would call the middle ground or the neutral ground or the facilitator. We’re a place where scientists and engineers and technical people and program managers can come together and talk about the issues that affect everybody and work together on a solution. We’re not a lobbying group, we’re not going to lobby for a specific industry.

For example, let’s look at aviation. Commercial aviation is incredibly safe, that’s very well established. Now you’ve got the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones. How do you integrate them into this complex air system with commercial aviation and general aviation? The same thing is happening in space. Everybody wants to launch 8,000,000 satellites. How do you incorporate that into the system and keep track of all of them? And then there’s hypersonics. We’ll keep pushing those technologies, but how do you incorporate all that?

A professional society is the place where the different sectors can come together to talk about issues that concern them all, not just in terms of policy but also technology development and resources. I think AIAA has a strong role to play as an enabler and a facilitator, a place to find common ground.

CHF: Looking at specifics, what are the aspects of your current job, if you can talk about them, that really wind your clock, that get you excited about being at AIAA?

MAGNUS: It goes back to when I was thinking about my future life, I had to address the question: What do you do when you’ve done the only thing that you ever wanted to do? That’s a really tough question.

One of the pieces of advice that I give people now and that I got when I was younger is, always follow your passion. You don’t ever want to do something that’s not interesting to you. I knew I didn’t want a job just to have a job. I wanted a job I could sink my teeth into, something I was passionate about and interested in. Being an astronaut wasn’t a job to me. It was like a lifestyle or a vocation. As I was thinking of what to do next, I thought the probability that I have anything like that ever again is slim but it can happen.

But there are other things I’m passionate about and interested in, and I sat down and made a list of them. I also made a list of things I knew I didn’t want to do, because that can be helpful too—sometimes it’s easier to eliminate things than to come up with stuff from scratch. I also bought a map of the United States and crossed off all the places I didn’t want to live because it was too cold—there were some practical parts to this as well.

What are things that I like? STEM and working with young people: very important. Again, based on my experience, you have to expose kids, students, young people to these ideas so they can know what their possibilities are, because it’s difficult to choose a career if you don’t know it exists.

I wanted to stay in aerospace. Eventually I might move out of aerospace, but for now I want to stay because I want to use my “astronaut silver bullet” wisely and not just for one company. That wasn’t for me.

I was interested in learning how nonprofits work because some day I think it would be interesting to do humanitarian work or disaster relief. I’m not a medical person but I’m extremely organized and I can do logistics. The job I do now gives me an entrée into nonprofits and how they work in general. The AIAA position was also attractive because I can speak out on issues related to the industry.

Another thing that was attractive was that I’d never done management before. Astronauts may be leaders but we’re not managers. We are not “in charge” or managing anything as part of our roles at NASA. And our leadership is sort of tangential because we don’t have any official authority for products, we’re the customer for lots of people: people make the equipment, we use it; people make the products, we use them.

The AIAA position was an opportunity to find out if I had management and leadership capabilities. First of all I’d find out if I have the capabilities and, second, whether I like it and want to continue doing those kinds of things. I figured if I have the capabilities and it went really well, other doors would open that I didn’t even know existed.

If it went really badly I could join the Peace Corps, because that’s something I want to do anyway and that would give me my out from aerospace. I’m totally serious about that and it’s still an option for me.

So there was no downside to taking the AIAA position and it checked a lot of boxes. It’s in Washington, DC, a nice area, not too cold—I’m really not a winter person (Moscow was hard). And this is not a permanent job—it has a time period associated with it. I was also looking at academia, which checks a lot of boxes, but at that moment when I was evaluating my future trajectory I saw academia as my final home and I wasn’t ready for a final home yet. So that’s why I came here. It checked a lot of boxes and I did that analysis.

RML: You mentioned education and young people and that’s of great interest to the NAE as well. Do you speak to young people? What sort of interaction do you have with youngsters?

MAGNUS: I do a lot in my role as AIAA executive director. I’ve been going out of my way to do a lot with undergraduates, graduates, and young professionals who are at the beginning of their career. We have seven annual student paper competitions and I’ve been going to two a year. One is a design-build-fly competition for undergraduates and I go to that every year.

I’ve also been out and about talking with our section members and they sometimes have students at their meetings. We’ve been working on our student program conferences so that when the students come we can better engage them with the community—they get exposed to what’s going on, they meet mentors and role models, and they get to meet each other because they’ll be their network. Every time I talk to students, I tell them, “Look around this room. These are the people you’re going to be travelling with for the next 30–35 years of your life. You need to start establishing your networks now.”

For the younger crowd, we’ve been rebuilding the AIAA Foundation to set up some more concrete STEM programming. That’s still in the works; we’ve been working on it for three years so hopefully we’re going to get that off the ground. But when people ask me to come talk to kids, I really do all that I can. I get a lot of requests; I can’t do all of them, but I’ve gone to several high schools in the area, and I talk to Girl Scout troops. Whenever I’m free and I can, I go talk to younger kids as well.

For example, after I got back from my first mission, Space Transportation System (STS) 112, I went to my hometown and probably talked to 90 percent of the high school and middle school students in the area.

RML: On another subject, I understand that you know NAE executive officer Al Romig. How did you come to know each other?

MAGNUS: When you’re in the astronaut office, you’re pretty isolated from the rest of the industry, although you don’t realize it at the time because you’re very focused on executing the missions—in my case the space station—so you only have a small sliver of a window into what’s going on across the aerospace industry. When I became executive director of AIAA in late 2012, I started getting out and about in the industry a lot more and that’s when I met Al. I’ve met a lot of people in this job actually. Al’s a good guy. We hit it off.

CHF: As we approach the end of our hour, is there anything you’d like to convey to the NAE members and/or readers of the Bridge, who include members of Congress and students and departments of engineering around the country?

MAGNUS: I have two levels of messages. For the students: If you have a dream you can achieve it. When I was a kid, even though I knew I wanted to be an astronaut, I remember still doubting myself, thinking ‘Right, like I’m going to be an astronaut. Other people get to do that. I’m just a girl from a small town.’ It’s very easy to talk yourself out of your dream because it seems so impossible. But the point is, there’s nothing special about me. I was a little girl with a dream. I worked really hard and it happened.

You owe it to yourself to try for your dreams. If you don’t try, you never get anywhere. That’s a message I give students when I talk to them. There’s nothing special about me. I was a small-town girl in the Midwest with a dream and I worked really hard. So that’s one level of message.

CHF: That’s a great message for people of all ages, actually.

MAGNUS: Yes, because people put limits on themselves. It’s really easy to talk yourself out of why you shouldn’t go do something because it seems too hard or what if you fail, blah, blah, blah. That’s all bullcrap. You owe it to yourself to try really hard and see what happens. If you don’t make it, at least you know you tried. But you don’t want to look back on your life and think, ‘gosh, I wonder what would have happened if I had tried to be an astronaut.’ That’s an insane way to live. Don’t live like that.

The other message goes back to where I started: Kids can’t pick careers they don’t know anything about. Any kind of program or activity or outreach, by anybody—this doesn’t just have to do with engineers—that gives young people an idea of what’s out there for them to choose from is very powerful.

For all the people in the NAE who are engineers, reach out to five students a year. Talk about how as engineers you can change the world and make it a better place and help people.

Sometimes when we talk to people about engineering, it’s all about building cool stuff—which, by the way, we do in the aerospace industry, where we also make things that help people. I think having a dialogue with young women along those lines will resonate more. Why do so many young women go into biomedical? That field is almost 50-50 men and women. For engineers and policy people, my message is that programs or outreach that can show students and young people what their possibilities are are very powerful. Because you can’t choose it if you don’t know it exists.

RML: Those are great messages and I’m delighted to hear that you pay so much attention to young people. I have four granddaughters and I’m always concerned about making sure they understand that this world is for them as well as for everybody else and they need to have dreams too.

CHF: And speaking of reaching out to kids and girls in particular, Sandy, do you know about the NAE’s EngineerGirl website ( It’s a really dynamic interactive site for young people—especially at the age you were when you decided you wanted to be an astronaut—who want to get information about engineering and all of their options. We would love to include you among the engineers featured as role models.

MAGNUS: I’ll take a look at it. I’d be happy to participate in something like that.

RML: Sandy, thank you so much.

MAGNUS: I’m flattered that you guys wanted to chat. Hopefully the resulting article can inspire at least one kid somewhere.


1 NEEMO = NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations