NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus answers a question during a lunch and talk with physics students.

Former NASA astronaut and alumna Magnus inspires students on campus visit

April 12, 2016 by Greg Katski

During a recent visit to Missouri S&T, former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus shared wisdom, inspiration and humorous stories from her time in space. She also shared an important message with students: “You can do this, too.”

Magnus holds a bachelor of science in physics and master of science in electrical engineering from S&T. She flew three missions to space during her time with NASA, including STS-135, the final mission of the American Space Shuttle Program, and also lived on the International Space Station for over four months. Her last duty at NASA was as the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office. She currently serves as executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Magnus spent much of her campus visit on April 7-8 offering advice and guidance to students. She answered questions from physics students over lunch, held a Q&A with Society of Women Engineers students, and was the honorary guest at a dinner reception hosted by Sigma Gamma Tau Honor Society, a service organization for aerospace engineering students.

During her lunch and talk with physics students, Magnus noted the growth on campus and said she enjoyed her time as an undergraduate student in the physics department.

“I really liked all the attention, and the fact that faculty were accessible. I definitely hope you’re taking advantage of that,” she told the students in attendance.

She said that her physics background was “extremely useful because you can take physics and you can use it anywhere.”

“Whatever you want to do, you’ve got a really strong tool set. It’s a very, very valuable degree,” she added.

The students in the crowded conference room asked questions ranging from “How are you?” and “Do you like to read?” to questions about the privatization of space travel and the challenges of living in zero gravity.

“It’s just incredible to be in the same room as anyone that has been in space,” said Skye Tackkett, a sophomore in physics from Kansas City, Missouri. “The fact that she is a woman in STEM, where it’s really, really male-dominated and occasionally can be a little bit discouraging, is even more incredible. It’s really nice to be able to come listen to the experiences of a woman who has been so successful in everything, especially as a physics undergrad.”

Tackkett enjoyed hearing about Magnus’ stories from space and her adventures in zero gravity. “Just hearing about the little stories like, ‘Oh, we need lights on the floor,’ or ‘Oh, if you set things down, they will float away’ was great,” said Tackkett.

Magnus was candid about her experiences in space. At one point, she talked about her first reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“All of a sudden, I’m having to engage my arm muscles,” she said, motioning her arms up and down. “And I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is going on?’

“I started feeling this force, out of nowhere, holding me in my seat,” she added. “That was the force of gravity. I was shocked. To feel it as an external force was weird and really eye opening.”

In fact, gravity, or the lack thereof, played all sorts of tricks on Magnus while she was in space.

“What you can’t simulate is how to handle zero gravity. Gravity does a lot for us,” she said. “The sleeping part – that’s the hardest thing that people have adapting to. I remember my first night in orbit. I had this sensation of falling, which I was. I kept expecting to hit the floor.”