How did your peers and teachers react to your ambitions to become an astronaut?

Well, you know it's really funny. I didn't tell anybody. I was very self-conscious about it. I was 11 or 12 years old when that dream hit me and I was afraid people were going to laugh at me.

I told my parents and my parents were very supportive. They were supportive of all their children, whatever their dreams were and they just told me to go for it.

I finally started telling some of my friends when I got to university and they were all very excited about it. Years later when I became an astronaut, one of my friends was like "oh, we knew you were going to make it." I was like "okay, well I’m glad you knew because I didn't.” But most people when I did tell, they were very, very supportive about it. 

Dr Sandra Magnus with UNSW students

Dr Sandra Magnus with UNSW students

What do you think are the most important qualities for a person to become an astronaut?

Well the one thing you must have is some sort of a technical background, although we have medical doctors as well, but really you have to be a well-rounded person. You really need to love learning because I think if you can say anything about being an astronaut, you know the fun in space is fantastic I highly recommend it, but the other thing that I really enjoyed about the job is that I always had to learn something new. There's such a breadth of knowledge that you need in order for you to, for example, to live on the space station.  

I had to learn the Russian language. I had to learn all the space station systems. I had to learn the robotics systems. I had to learn the spacewalk suit systems. I had to learn how to take photography. I had to learn how to draw my own blood. I had to learn how to talk to the public. I had to learn how to do plumbing, mechanical and electrical work, learn about all the science experiments. I had to learn about the Earth so I knew what I was taking pictures of so I could get the right pictures. I mean there's just constant learning and so you have to be someone who enjoys that and just thrives on those kinds of challenges. I think that's really the key to being a successful astronaut!

What advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?

Aim for the moon - an astronaut's advice

Have you ever found being a woman a disadvantage in your profession?

No, I haven't because it's all about being competent, being professional and being reliable. You know when you're training for a mission you get to know your crew members really well. And it isn't a matter of whether you are a male or female crew member, its can your team mates count on you to do your job? Can your team mates count on you to be reliable? Can your team mates count on you to act with good judgement and be competent? I think if you're a person who's all of those things whether you're a female in a male dominated field, or a male in a female dominated field, or in mixed fields where ever, I think if you show those traits, it really doesn't matter what gender you are. It's are you a reliable team member? Can your co-workers count on you to do your job?

Where is space research or space travel heading in the next 50 years? What challenges are ahead?

That's a really great question, because look how far we've come in 50 years. You know, 2019 is the 50 year anniversary of the lunar landing. So we're four years short of that and you think about everything that's happened worldwide and space in the last 50 years. How many countries are active in space at any kind of level? It's absolutely incredible how far we've come as a species and it seems like it's taken forever. I mean 50 years, it's such a long time. It's actually pretty fast for us to have done the things that we've done as a species in space. Because it's hard, space is hard, it's not like walking to the next room. It takes time. It takes huge amounts of investment. It takes huge amounts of technical know-how. It takes huge amounts of educational training in order to be successful in space.

You look at the International Space Station program and one of the really important aspects of that program, that people don't talk about, is the fact that you have 16 countries with different languages, different political systems, different ways of approaching problems and solving problems, English system versus metric system. I mean all kinds of obstacles that could have kept a program like that from being successful, instead not only was it successful, it is successful. We continue to be successful; you've got this really complex engineering program that we decided as a group of varied nations to make work and we made it work and it's continuing to work well, so that just shows you what we can do in the next 50 years, if we really want to.

Any kind of exploration beyond our Earth orbit is going to be an international project at some level and people are trying to figure out what that might look like. But I think that's what we'll see in the next 50 years. You'll see human beings expanding our horizon beyond the Earth orbit into our near neighbouring solar system and what I would love to see and people are working on this in the United States, is how you then expand private enterprise into low Earth orbit. So that's not really just governments who are doing things in low Earth orbit but there is human endeavours in low Earth orbit that are driven more by commercial interests and therefore giving access to more people to space. I would love to see that happening and some of that, seeds of that is occurring in the States. Whether it takes 10 more years to bring that to fruition or 15 or 20, that's the trajectory that we're on, so stay tuned. 

Dr Magnus delivers her talk - "Perspectives from Space" at UNSW

And finally, what is your ultimate dream?

Well, it's funny, my ultimate dream was to be an astronaut and fly in space, so I’ve done that. I have to come up with another ultimate dream and that's really hard. When my flying career was at its end, I had to sit down and really think about what did I want to do next, because what do you do when you've done the only thing you've ever wanted to do? How do you follow that?

This job I have now at AIAA is really a wonderful opportunity for me to find out what else is going on the aerospace community and think about what is next and I don't have a good answer to that question yet. That's a toughie!

This Q&A was first published in UNSW Engineers emagazine.