Profile | Sandy Magnus, Executive Director, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

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Throughout the final space shuttle mission, astronaut Sandy Magnus, one of four crew members assigned to the 135th flight in the 30-year program, was asked what she planned to do next.

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is be is an astronaut. And I got to be an astronaut and then I had to accept the fact that I wasn’t going to fly anymore,” Magnus says.

After mulling over options for a year or so, Magnus has landed in Washington as the new executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), a professional society looking to broaden its reach.

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She spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida recently as Atlantis, the last shuttle to fly, made its way to the Visitors Complex to begin its new life as a museum piece.

What do you say to people who think the human spaceflight program is over?

We were getting that when we were on our whirlwind tour after we landed. There are a lot of people who think that we don’t have a spaceflight program and we say, “No, we do have a spaceflight program.” And, no offense, but I think it was partly the way it was reported at the time — everyone’s like, “Oh, the program is over.” No, the shuttle program is over, the human spaceflight program is not over. People get confused.

Now that you’re outside NASA, is this an area you want to work on?

Of course. The thing that I find is that people are excited about it when you bring it to their attention. We’re all so trapped in our daily lives of get up, get the kids up, get the kids dressed, have breakfast, get the kids to school, go to work, work, pick up the kids, get the kids to soccer practice, get the kids to gymnastics, to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, have dinner, stop and take a deep breath and have a moment. And you do that all day. It’s human nature, it’s totally normal. We’re all very focused on just executing our own lives so you don’t have time to think about what’s going on in the space program.

But when you talk to people, they are just excited to hear about what’s going on. They are proud of the fact that we’re doing all these things. That’s why you hear people say there’s support for the space program that is three miles wide and an inch deep. I would argue that that’s pretty significant that we’ve got three-miles-wide support because we don’t have energy as human beings and it’s not in our nature to have that kind of focus on something that you can’t see on an everyday basis.

How did you land at AIAA?

They actually gave me a call. I was sort of trying to figure out what to do when I grew up. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut and I’ve been very fortunate that I got to be an astronaut and now I’m done being an astronaut, unfortunately. I still would love to fly, but with the level of experience in the office — I already was one of the more experienced people — it just wasn’t fair to keep expecting to go when you had people with little or no experience, so I had to be a grown-up and accept the fact that this was done. But I had never had thought about what I wanted to do, because that’s what I always wanted to do. So I was taking my time and thinking about it. Things were popping up on my radar occasionally and that AIAA opportunity looked like a really cool opportunity.

Why did you take it?

It gave me an opportunity to still be involved in the aerospace community, in aviation and space, but in a different way. I could still promote the industry, I could still be involved in all this cool stuff. I love the people in it, I love the passion, I love the complex challenges that we have to solve. I love the fact that we solve it and the idea of not being able to work in the industry anymore was just sad to me. This gave me a chance to be involved, supporting people and helping to advance the profession and the industry. Plus it was enticing for me to get to understand how a nonprofit operates. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.

How will you weigh in on some of the issues facing the industry, like export control and sequestration?

Because we’re the professional society for the aerospace industry we have within our membership — we have 30,000 people — all the experts about what’s going on in aerospace. The way we get involved in policy stuff is providing expertise in all sides of the question. We can’t make the decision but we can help frame the questions and help answer the questions.

What are your goals for AIAA?

One of the things we want to do is grow our membership. We’re an aging organization, so we’re going to do things to try to attract and retain younger members. We want to expand our collaborations with our sister societies and we would like to make sure that the organization stays relevant — that’s also a big word in the association world these days. We would like to represent the whole aerospace profession and not just aerospace engineers.

One thing we’re also doing is in the past our conferences have been mainly just technically orientated. We’re consolidating and expanding the scope of our conferences in response to the economic climate we live in as well as the move to represent the whole profession. Our conferences will include programs that are policy-related and topical on current events, move out of the purely technical into perhaps operations and these other areas.

What do you think distinguishes AIAA from all the other aerospace and space science groups?

With respect to the Aerospace Industries Association and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, those groups were specifically set up as lobbying organizations. We are not a lobbying organization. We’re actually a 501(c)(3), so we cannot lobby. We can educate and we can provide expertise. So there’s a big difference right there. We work very closely with them on programming and things like that, but our agendas are completely different. I don’t think we really compete with each other. We just cover different niches. We do have similar corporate members. We started our life and are very strong and will remain so in the technical realm.

Has the economic situation impacted AIAA?

We have seen a little bit of a decline in membership but I think the big impact is conference attendance. Other societies and organizations are experiencing the same problem: People are not getting money from their companies to travel. Of course we’ve got the government rules — I’m sure you’re familiar with what happened in Las Vegas with the government group there that was not behaving responsibly and that sort of blanketed the ability of the rest of the civil servants to attend conferences in general. There have been several conferences canceled because of this. It’s unfortunate because it’s really important to have these places for government, academia and industry to have conversations together and network.

So how do you like your new job so far?

I’m picking up new skill sets. I never had to worry about budgets and some of the more traditional management stuff. We do a lot of leadership stuff as astronauts, but the management stuff is not something we run across a lot. The staff is great, they’re passionate about what they do and they really care about the organization. It’s been fun getting to know them. I’m slowly getting to meet a lot of the leadership and I’m hoping to get out into the sections and meet a lot of the members too. I think that’s going to be great. I’ve really enjoyed it so far.