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Magnus’ growth is out of this world

Former soccer student-athlete takes final space shuttle flight

By Brian Burnsed

For one student-athlete, the soccer pitch at Missouri S&T was more than a vast field of grass where she played the sport she loved—it was a launching pad.

Sandra Magnus, who patrolled the back line for the Division II Miners in the mid-1980s, has grown from young soccer player to veteran astronaut—one of four who was aboard NASA’s final space shuttle mission last July. The lessons she learned on that pitch 100 miles west of St. Louis helped propel her more than 200 miles above Earth’s surface into orbit, where she spent four-and-a-half months on the International Space Station in early 2009. 

On Friday, Magnus, who earned her degree in physics from Missouri S&T (then known as Missouri-Rolla) in 1986 and has made three trips to space, addressed Division II attendees at the 2012 NCAA Convention. She relayed how the lessons she learned as a student-athlete—knowing her role on a team, dealing with failure and setting goals, among others— have helped her endure the rigorous training and preparation required of astronauts.

“I wouldn’t have been as successful as I have been without those experiences,” Magnus said. “You have to learn to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the team members. It’s just like that in NASA; I am a very small part of a very large team.”

Rolla didn’t field a varsity women’s team until Magnus’ freshman year, but the program found success by its second season—finishing 10-5 and being ranked as high as tenth nationally—thanks to a staunch defense anchored by Magnus and All-American goalkeeper Lisa Frumhoff.

Frumhoff credits her career 1.24 goals against average—still a school record— not only to her own dexterity, but to the support of the defense in front of her led by fellow Miners Hall-of-Famer Magnus.

“It wasn’t just me; I had a great defense that made that possible, and [Magnus] was a highlight of that defense,” Frumhoff said. “She had my back.”

When they were teammates, Magnus never hinted at her desire to venture to the stars, Frumhoff said, and like many of the players on the young team, Magnus was relatively introverted. But as the Miners garnered more success, Magnus gradually emerged as a vocal leader. 

“As she gained confidence in her ability as a player, she definitely became a leader of that defense,” Frumhoff said.

Learning when to both accept and cede the mantle of leadership on the field was integral to her team’s defensive success, Magnus said, and the same applied in space. Magnus noted that she knew when to follow the mission commander’s lead and when to take charge, much as she did when the central defender beside her would be pushed out of position at Missouri-Rolla.

“Everyone always talks about the importance of leadership, but it’s important to learn when to be a follower [as well],” she said. “Getting comfortable with that changing internal dynamic is important. And it’s something you learn in sports—you learn it naturally.”

While making a varsity college athletic team is no simple task, it pales in comparison to challenge of becoming an astronaut. Every few years, NASA requests applications to fill a new astronaut class. They whittle the pool—typically around 3,000—down to only about a dozen.

While trust and confidence are hallmarks of great athletic teams, they too are integral in the unforgiving vacuum of space, where the line between success and catastrophe is razor thin. Fellow astronaut Rex Walheim—who was aboard the final shuttle mission with Magnus last year—echoes Frumhoff’s sentiments.

“She’s very trustworthy,” he said. “Combine that with a work ethic that is beyond reproach and she’s very easy to work with in space. I trusted she’d handle her part of the mission.”

Even the most agonizing memories of her time on the soccer field have served Magnus well in her career.

With her parents and friends watching, and Magnus and the Miners trying to hold a 1-0 lead against heavily-favored University of Missouri-St. Louis, Magnus lived every defender’s nightmare—scoring an own goal. The error cost her team the win, and she was mortified. But she said that incident taught her to brush off mistakes. In space, that own goal was always the first thing that popped into her head when something went awry.

“You can’t hang your head and have a pity party. The team is counting on you,” she said. “You have to accept it, you have to let it go, you have to move on.”