Two-time space traveller Sandra Magnus: Our planet is so special, don’t take it for granted

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NASA Astronaut Dr Sandra Magnus

The view of a mountain range from space looked so spectacular that NASA Astronaut Dr Sandra Magnus enlisted the Nepal on her bucket list and decided to visit this Himalayan country as early as she could make it.

Born and brought up in Illinois of the United States, it was in middle school when she decided to become an astronaut. She then earned a degree in physics and electrical engineering from University of Missouri-Rolla and a PhD in material science and engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1996.

The astronaut, now 53, headed on her first space mission, STS-112, in 2002 and International Space Station in 2008. Dr Magnus has spent 134 days in space. She took about 18,000 photos while in space.

She is on a private visit to Nepal for the past two months. Onlinekhabar caught up with Dr Sandra Magnus for a quick interview to tame the inquisitive minds with her ideas and experiences about space, space missions and her overall experience as an astronaut:

Can you tell us how a day in space looks like?

Yeah, it is kind of a normal work day, except for the fact that we are in space. We get up in the morning, we have some time to have breakfast and get ourselves ready for work. Then, we have a daily planning conference, which takes place with all of the control centres around the world. They have created our schedule for the day. So, we have a list of work that they would like for us to get done. Our daily planning conference is all about us understanding what they are requesting, and then we just start following the schedule that they have built for us.

We have lunch. We make sure we exercise. Exercising is very important as astronauts tend to lose body minerals in space. And then, in the end of the work day, which is about eight and half hours including the exercise, we have another conference with all of the control centres and we report another work plan and ask questions about the next day schedule and we just do general talking. The ground turns the video camera off.

We relax in the evening, have dinner, sometimes it is useful to find the equipment you need for the next day because that needs some time, call our family, do emails, look out of the window, take pictures, we go to the bed, we get up the next day and repeat the schedule.

How has your space travel experience during various missions changed your understandings, views and beliefs–about this world, and beyond?

So, when you are outside the planet and looking down on it, it’s immediately obvious that it is one planet. Every astronaut that flies into space will come back with the same information. You cannot see border of countries, you just see one plain. And it is sort of like our spaceship, right? We are all crew in that spaceship. So, it is obvious that everything that happens on the planet is all connected to everything else that happens on the planet. Also, you don’t take it for granted. For example, Nepal has beautiful nature. Because you live here, you probably do not notice it as much ’cause you take it for granted as you see it every day. But me, coming into the country and having a chance to tour around, I feel, ‘Oh my goodness, it is so beautiful here!”

Same thing, you getting off the planet and looking at it is like, Oh my goodness, our planet is so special. So, you learn not to take the planet for granted. We have to take care of it.

What are the preparations an astronaut does before heading on a mission?

When we are first selected into the astronaut core, we have two years of training. And we are training under all of the technology and engineering that goes into building a spacecraft that we fly. Spacewalk, robotics, photography, Russian language, medical operation… we are trained under these things. Then we are eligible for a flying assignment. If it is a shuttle mission, we are trained for another year, specifically for what we are going to do on that mission.

When we train for a space station mission, it takes a longer period of time. I trained for three and half years again on everything that is possible to happen on a space station. Nowadays, the training is for two and half years. Being an astronaut means you are a school student for a very long period of time.

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Dr Sandra Magnus

What is the role of astronomy in common people’s day-to-day life?

Astronomy is, of course, the study of stars and the universe. I think people are fascinated with the photos. On everyday basis, I think when people see everyday pictures of the stars, like Hubble space telescope has brought back so many spectacular pictures. I think when people see those pictures, it sparks curiosity, awe and wonder. And, those feelings can carry over into our daily lives and keep us alive as human beings are always questioning things and continues to allow us to grow. Astronomy taps that part of us that likes to explore and is enthralled by the mystery of the universe.

For me, astronomy is an elite business. It has nothing to do with people struggling to meet dbasic daily needs. How can you connect what you have been doing and what people in my country are struggling with?

I would use Langtang Valley as an example. As I was hiking in Langtang Valley, I noticed people were using solar shelves to heat water so they can have hot water very easily. They don’t have to cut down trees and boil water. The solar shelves came from the space industry because we needed to figure out how to generate electricity in space and it had to be sustainable. So, we can take the sun’s energy, create a solar shelf and turn that heat into electrical energy. Now, after a long period of time, as we needed to make solar shelves in space and improve them to make more efficient. They have become cheaper and more affordable and now, they are lighting the Valley, heat the water, right?

So, that has a direct applicability to people in Nepal. Now this evolution of technology does not happen overnight. It may take a decade or two. But there are people who are creating new technologies anywhere in the world; it  means that eventually those technologies will be available to everybody else in the world. And, space requires an incredible advance of technology just to operate whether it is just to machine or human. And that is the applicability to the people here in Nepal, which is already happening.

What are the common and uncommon things you do in space?

Well, common–you eat, you work just like a normal life. It is just that you’re doing it in space. The uncommon aspect we do is floating. So, you imagine living your daily life that way you do but now you are in the environment where everything you touch and everything you do and everywhere you move is all floating. So, think about your kitchen, and your bedroom at home. Things are sitting on shelves. If you were in space, they would not be sitting on shelves cause it has no gravity. So, you have to think in space differently about everyday life and that is the uncommon part as everything is floating all the time.

No Nepali has ever been an astronaut. What steps can our country take to end this crisis?

Well, first of all, it is extremely important to excite your youth about studying science, mathematics, engineering and technology because that is the language that we speak when we are in space. Those are the skills you need. Just like if you are going to be a medical doctor, you must understand the human body. If you are going to engage in space exploration, well as a Nepali astronaut or a really smart Nepali engineer just helping develop the equipment that flies in space, you have to be able to speak science and maths, understand engineering and be comfortable with technology.

So, these are the tiny ways to excite your youth and show them, both males and females, that this is a wonderful opportunity for them to create the workforce and excitement. And, they will be very integral in where you might find an astronaut… or how they might make connections internationally with people who have shared interest to create collaborative projects that will bring knowledge and opportunity to people in Nepal. But, you have to get them excited in science and engineering.

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Dr Sandra Magnus

How did you feel about Nepalis and their interest in astronomy and universe? What are the aspects that Nepal should consider in the field of science and technology that contributes to its overall development?

Everyone is always excited to hear about space. I don’t care where you live in the planet. People are always fascinated about the idea of exploring space and I find that no different here in Nepal. I had the opportunity to speak at two schools and Nepal Academy of Science and Technology.  They are very curious, eager and excited about the science subject. Space is actually a way that many countries use to excite their youth about science and technology because it is a natural thing that people are interested in.

I talk about this with several people as I have been living in the country for two months now. As I moved around the country, I can see civil engineering is very important because you have dealt with the earthquakes and now you are building roads and understand how to survive such earth shaking. You have hydroelectric power here. How you collect that energy and create those power plants, store and distribute, conservation and environmental science …  I think there is a lot of natural engineering and science disciplines that the country can build of.

 What is the future of astronomy in the world?

Well, the future of expedition in space, whether it is astronomy or humans, is growing. There are so many countries involved globally sending satellites, humans into space, and interested in collaborating in space programmes together. These arrangements are both multilateral like the space station programme in which 16 countries are working together, or bilateral like the programmes between Nepal and Japan to send a cube satellite up. These agreements are happening all over the world.

It would be lovely to see Nepal engage in more of that. It has a wonderful future here.

Now let us get back to some basic questions. How does it feel to identify yourself as an astronaut?

I feel very fortunate to have gotten to do the things that I have done. It was a dream of mine and I was very lucky to have my dream come true. I take the responsibility very seriously which is why I try talking to students whenever I get opportunities to. I feel very lucky to call myself an astronaut.

What is the best thing about being in space?

I have to say there are two best things, I cannot say one. Okay, one is living without gravity. Being able to float all the time is really awesome. And also, looking out and seeing our earth go by, and having all those beautiful views of our earth available all the time. It is so amazing.

What are the biggest hurdles you faced till date?

Usually my hurdles are self-inflicted. I have to make sure that I learn lessons I am supposed to be learning from everyday experience and grow in appropriate way. Even though I am a woman in a male-dominated field, I have had good respect from my colleagues. I feel that is because I am trying to be professional, and I work really hard. That gains more respect. So, I feel that is true for anyone and any field. If you try those things, you are going to be doing very well. I think the biggest problem is I do not have enough time for things I want to do.

Anything you wish to do if got chance to go to space again?

Oh, I would love to go again. Going back and living on the space station would be really wonderful. The possibility to go to the moon and mars is very intriguing, although I might not be the right age for that. Just the idea of exploring new things is very exciting.