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Sandra Magnus: Soaring to new heights

Astronaut finds herself on a new mission

In college, former student-athlete Sandra Magnus divided her time between the classroom and soccer field. These days, she gets a kick out of a career path that’s taken her to outer space and back and into her current position of executive director for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Born in Belleville, Illinois, near St. Louis, Magnus is the oldest of four children raised by a father who worked in insurance. Her mother was a nurse and later an instructor at a nearby community college. When Magnus was in the fifth grade, the local Little League expanded its soccer offerings to include a girls division. Her father signed the daughters up and coached the team.

“For us, soccer was a family activity,” Magnus recalled. “We all played at one time or another.”

Sandra Magnus

There was no girls’ soccer team at Belleville West High School while Magnus attended. Instead, she competed in softball, track and field and swimming. With aptitudes for science and math, Magnus also harbored dreams of becoming an astronaut.

“I knew I wanted to go into space and push the boundaries,” she said. “When you’re young, all sorts of different things capture your imagination. For me, that’s what stuck.”

Magnus enrolled at the University of Missouri-Rolla, now the Missouri University of Science and Technology, earning her bachelor’s degree in physics in 1986 and a master’s in electrical engineering in 1990. She later completed a doctorate from the School of Material Science and Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

When Magnus arrived at Missouri-Rolla, the school was just starting its varsity women’s soccer program. Magnus tried out as a freshman walk-on, made the team and started as a right-wing defender for four years. She credits her student-athlete experience for teaching her to be organized and manage her time.

“To be a student-athlete in any sport, you have to make a commitment to practices, to games and to schoolwork,” she explained. “You have to hunker down to fit in everything you need to do, and you have to be disciplined. I would take classes in the mornings so I’d be able to study in the afternoons before practices.”

Many lessons Magnus learned as a student-athlete still resonate with her today.

“There are so many personal benefits that come from participating in a college sport,” she said. “You learn to work as part of a team. You gain an understanding of how leadership dynamics work. And you learn to gracefully handle mistakes; you figure out how to recover and go on because you know your team is still counting on you.”

After graduation, Magnus joined the McDonnell Douglas company working in stealth engineering before joining NASA in 1996. Following two years of training, she became qualified to fly on the space shuttle. Eventually, Magnus would take two trips to space, one a 4 1/2 month 50 million-mile trip on the International Space Station and the other the final Atlantis mission in 2011.

“I’m so appreciative that I got to live on the space station as long as I did; it’s a totally different perspective than visiting it for a few days,” she said. “And I’m honored that I got to be part of the last Atlantis crew. Being able to celebrate all the great things the shuttle accomplished in 30 years was a wonderful experience.”

In October 2012, Magnus was appointed executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Reston, Virginia, an organization that represents 35,000 members in 80 countries around the world.

“To me, being successful means setting a goal and giving it your all,” Magnus said. “So many people tend to limit themselves because they’re afraid of failure, but if you look at people who are successful, they don’t accept limits. They just go for it.”

Magnus urges today’s student-athletes to make the most of their experiences.

“You can always earn another dollar somewhere, somehow, but you can’t get time back once it’s gone,” she explained. “Do the things that are important to you and enjoy this time in your life. Being a student-athlete is a great experience, and as such, you’re establishing foundations that will serve you the rest of your life. I look back on my college soccer days, and they were just so much fun. I truly value having had that experience.”


Sandra Magnus
Former NASA astronaut, current executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Hometown: Belleville, Illinois

Current city: Washington, D.C.

School: Bachelor degree in physics, Missouri University of Science and Technology 1986, Physics; Master’s in electrical engineering, Missouri University of Science and Technology, 1990; Doctorate, School of Material Science and Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, 1996

Sport: Soccer

Fun fact: Enjoys playing soccer, as well as reading, cooking, travel and water activities.

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