Words of Wisdom: Sandy Magnus

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science earlier this week (11th February), I hope to use this website to highlight some of the distinguished female members of the space sector, the work they’ve done and continue to do, and their Words of Wisdom (WoW).

Although it may seem to an external observer that space is a male dominated field, there are plenty of incredible women working in the field too. From the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova) to the first Briton in space (Helen Sharman) and to the current age, there have been numerous women working alongside their male counterparts to further our reach into the cosmos.

The first of these WoW women I’ve had the privilege and honour of speaking to was Dr Sandy Magnus.

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Image credits: nasa.gov, Antonio Fowl Stark

As I mentioned in my previous post, Sandy is a former NASA astronaut and current Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). She has a background in Physics with a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering. Prior to joining NASA, she worked at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company as a stealth engineer. Having had the opportunity to go to space three times, she has the bragging rights of being called one of the final astronauts of the Space Shuttle Program having flown on STS-135, its last mission. I spoke to Sandy about women in space, and here’s what she had to say.

AT: What first interested you in science, engineering, and space?

SM: I did not know that engineering existed when I was in middle and high school.  I was attracted to Physics as I was always a curious person and was constantly asking the question “why” to understand how the world works.  I was always fascinated with space and the idea of going into space just stuck with me.

AT: How did you become involved with NASA? Did you just apply for an astronaut position?

SM: Yes! I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an Astronaut and when I felt like I had assembled a good resume I called the Johnson Space Center, asked for the Astronaut Selection office and asked for an application.  Typically when NASA is interested in hiring Astronauts they put out an “open announcement” with a deadline for applications and people are invited to apply.

AT: Why do you think there is an underrepresentation of women in space? 

SM: I think the number of women in the US space program represents the fraction of women that are engaged, in general, in the US in the sciences and engineering.  So if we could get more women involved in STEM careers I think the pool of qualified candidates would increase and hence the number of women in the Astronaut corps.  I would like to note that in the last class of Astronauts that NASA selected, in 2012, they selected 50% women and 50% men!

AT: Did you ever find it difficult to be a woman in science/engineering? 

SM: Not really. I have been fortunate in that there was a wave of women a generation ahead of me who did a great amount of work in breaking barriers and I benefited, just as I hope my generation can continue that work.  I have been in environments where I am the only woman in the group but I have found that if I work hard, contribute, and act with self-assurance things have gone OK.

AT: What advice do you have for a young girl who likes the idea of space, but is unsure about her prospects (especially of becoming an astronaut)? 

SM: I think it is very important for anyone, whether a young girl or young boy, to follow their passion.  I would encourage any young person to not let anyone else tell them what they can and cannot do.  If you are a young girl and you are interested in space then I would encourage you to follow that dream!  I never knew if I had any chance of becoming an Astronaut but I definitely knew there was no way I could become one if I did not try.  You have to try for your dreams—it is that simple.  And… people will help you if you ask for help.  Others may laugh or tell you “it is  just not possible”.  Ignore them- you owe it to yourself to “go for it”!!!!

AT: What if she’s not good at science or maths, but still really interested in space? 

SM: There are lots of types of careers and opportunities that are in the space sector that are not related to only being a scientist or engineer (although I would challenge the “not good” part right off the bat!).  The space industry needs communication specialists, finance and marketing specialists, human resource specialists, program managers, graphic artists, computer people….. really the list goes on and on and on.  I am sure any person can find a place for their skill set to contribute.

AT: Do you have any other comment, message or Words of Wisdom? 

SM: I really cannot emphasize enough to young people that you should always follow your passion and don’t let anyone stop you.  It takes hard work, determination and perseverance, but with those three elements—anything is possible.

When the dreams of space exploration are achieved, the benefits will be felt by all of humanity for generations to come, so I for one am incredibly pleased that Sandy Magnus has contributed and continues to contribute to make those dreams a reality and inspires a whole new generation in her wake by doing so.

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