SciCheer Summer interviews astronaut Sandra Magnus

This is a guest blog post from Science Cheerleader Summer (NASA engineer and former Houston Texans cheerleader). Below, Summer shares her interview with Dr. Sandra Magnus who was the last female astronaut to fly on the last Space Shuttle mission.


The final Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, ended on July 21st when Atlantis rolled to its final stop at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Space Shuttle program spanned an era of 30 years (as long as I’ve been alive) and achieved many great things for our nation, including technological advancement and building one of the most amazing structures that remains above us – the International Space Station. Thousands of bright, committed and passionate men and women contributed with perseverance and endurance of challenges which resulted in such a successful part of our United States space program – NASA. As a member of the NASA team for 8 years now and as a Science Cheerleader, I decided to find a just few small facts about female astronauts in the Space Shuttle Program to share with all of you Science Cheerleader fans. (You can go learn more about NASA astronauts here.)

• 1983 – Dr. Sally Ride was the first woman to fly on a Space Shuttle
• 1995 – Eileen Collins was the first woman pilot of a Space Shuttle
• 1999 – Eileen Collins was the first female Space Shuttle Commander
• 49 women flew on Space Shuttles
• 44 Americans
• 2 Canadians
• 2 Japanese
• 1 Russian
• 2011 – Sandra Magnus was the last female astronaut to fly on the last Space Shuttle mission

Sandra Magnus is an astronaut I was particularly interested in hearing from because in November 2008, she was part of the crew that installed Crew Quarters on the International Space Station. Crew Quarters was a project I worked on as an engineer for just over four years here at Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX and my greatest engineering achievement to date! When the opportunity arose to interview astronauts on the history-making, very last Space Shuttle mission, STS-135, I decided to ask Sandra questions about her first experiences with science, becoming an astronaut, challenges she faced, her interests outside of science and engineering and, of course, her experience with my project, Crew Quarters. Read the interview below and see what you might have in common with an astronaut and if there is anything you can learn from Sandra.

Summer: What was your first real experience with science/engineering?
Sandra: I remember dissecting frogs in my middle school science class. I am not sure why I remember that so clearly but that definitely was one of my first formal experiences. We also studied the solar system. I think, though, that I have always been curious about how the world works. I remember my parents purchasing a book for me titled “200 Questions Why” when I was very young.

Summer: Why did you decide to become an astronaut?
Sandra: I wanted to explore and work on the edge of technology and of course, see the planet from space!

Summer: What education and experiences brought you to where you are now?

Sandra: Well I started off in Physics. When I was in high school and formulating my plan for how I was going to get someday, hopefully, to the Astronaut office I really did not know anything about Engineering. So I latched on to Physics as my means. Physics was a great fit for me because it explains how the world works and as I mentioned before that was something that always intrigued me. When I got to college I discovered Engineering and that became interesting to me. I also got tired of school so I decided to work for a while and get a masters, in Electrical Engineering at night. I worked in stealth technology at McDonnell Douglas helping to design a new kind of aircraft. It was there that my interest in materials and how they work matured. At that point I decided to do my PhD in the study of materials. In some ways this was the perfect intersection of science and engineering. After my PhD I applied to the Astronaut program and was lucky enough to get selected. So I started with one plan, go Physics all the way, and as I got out into the world and broadened my horizons, I discovered other interests and changed my plan. I think it is important to have a plan but not to be afraid to change it or alter as you pursue your goal and broaden your experience base.

Summer: What challenges did you face growing up and/or in school as a girl?
Sandra: Well in high school I was considered one of the “smart girls” and did not ever go to a prom or date much. At the time that was kind of tough but it is probably not outside of the norm for most teen-agers. It is an age where we all feel awkward no matter who we are and what labels are applied to us. You just have to believe in yourself and be yourself!
Summer: Describe your interaction with ISS Crew Quarters delivered to the station on STS-126. {I am personally curious since I was an engineer on the Crew Quarters team and would like to share it with the girls} How do the Crew Quarters affect life on the Space Station?
Sandra: First of all my I actually built both of the crew quarters that we delivered on STS-126. They arrived “some assembly” required with lots of piece parts. It felt like Christmas a bit! The procedures were well done and they went together fairly straightforwardly. The only issue that I really had to deal with mechanically was the use of torque tip fasteners as launch restraint devices. These kinds of fasteners should never be used in applications where they are expected to be removed, especially in space. The physics involved in applying the necessary force and direction is difficult is space and these fasteners strip very easily. But, in any event, the crew quarters are essential for life on the space station. It is very important to have your own private space to keep your stuff and have a place to have “quiet” time. At the end of the day I would retire to my personal space and talk to my family, write journals, review photos, watch a movie on the computer and things like that. The quiet and private space an individual crew quarters provides in extremely important!!

Summer: What advice would you give to girls considering careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math fields?
Sandra: I would encourage any young person interested in the STEM fields to follow their interest. There is so many interesting and exciting things going on in science, technology and exploration that I sometimes wish I had more time on my hands so I could branch out more. There are whole fields in existence now, such as biotechnology and nanotechnology and the intersection of the two, that were just emerging as I finished my studies. It is just fascinating! But more than that, I think one of the most valuable skills that you gain from studying in the STEM area is the ability to solve problems. That is what all of the training is about- looking at a problem, understanding how to break it down into small manageable chunks and then solve each chunk to finally get to the solution to the problem. This is a valuable life skill applicable in every aspect of everyday living!

Summer: What are your future plans?
Sandra: Well at the moment we are still finishing out the last of our STS-135 duties and I see that continuing for several months yet. After that I will have to look to the future so you may have to check back with me towards the end of the year. I have not had much time to think about it and probably will not until then.

Summer: What are your interests outside of STEM?
Sandra: I like to exercise, mainly running, swimming and weight lifting. I am also a soccer player although I have not been able to play for the last few years due to flight assignments (they don’t want us to get hurt while we are in training). I am hoping to start playing again early next year. I love to cook, bake, read and travel as well.

I now know that I have a few things in common with Sandra. I was just like her when I was growing up – considered a “smart girl” and didn’t date much. Sandra also taught me that the Crew Quarters are very useful in space, which really makes an engineer feel good, but that more appropriate fasteners should have been used in the design. (I plan to store that in my memory bank for my next big space flight project. Thanks, Sandra!)

What did you learn from Sandra? What do you have in common with this history making astronaut? Leave a comment!

I encourage you to absorb her advice on considering a career in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math-related field. Remember, if she can be an astronaut, so can you! Girls, we can do anything!

As Sandra said, she is wrapping up her STS-135 duties and still making plans for her future. Hopefully, we can touch base with her in a few months to see where STEM takes her next!
Goooooooooooooooo Science!!
Summer
Science Cheerleader and Aerospace Engineer