Astronaut Sandra Magnus, Expedition 18 flight engineer, works on a crew quarters compartment in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA
Dr. Sandra Magnus is one of the 58 women on planet Earth who’ve had the privilege of flying in space. Like many of us, she dreamed of being an astronaut as a girl. Her dream came true, but her path was circuitous. Not knowing much about career possibilities aa a high school student, she said:
"I thought engineers were people who drive trains, really, quite frankly, because there was no one in my family who was an engineer."Preflight Interview, 2008
Sandra earned a Bachelor’s degree in Physics from Missouri University of Science and Technology. At university, she discovered that engineers build things, not drive trains. After graduation, she worked on aircraft and stealth technology at McDonnell Douglas. In the evenings, she studied for, and completed, a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering.
She was fascinated by the materials used to build airplanes. The materials have to be strong and lightweight and, in the case of stealth technology, difficult to detect on radar. Wanting to learn more, Sandra enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech where she successfully earned a doctorate in materials science. It’s only then that Dr. Magnus applied to the Astronaut Office.
Her meandering path is an inspiration to me. None of us has a complete enough picture of the world when we are in high school to choose a lifelong career. Sandra didn’t know about engineers, or materials science. As she lived life and pursued the things that fascinated her, she found a career that truly spoke to who she is.
In a preflight interview, the interviewer asked her about the danger of flying in space. Sandra pointed out the great benefit to humanity. It’s something that we don’t often think about, but the engineering challenges of space also provide great advancements on Earth. She gave the example that the portable medical equipment used in ambulances is the result of the space program miniaturizing electronics for some of its earlier programs. Keeping that in mind, she says: “How could you not want to be a part of something like that.”