It’s become an American cliche, the familiar answer to a question asked of American schoolkids everywhere in the 1960s and ’70s. What do you want to be when you grow up? the teacher would ask. The less inspired among us would recite the usual answers: firefighters, doctors, police officers. But there were always other children whose imaginations were less bridled. Those were the kids whose thoughts reached for the stars — the kids who wiped their Tang mustaches on their sleeves and answered, I want to be an astronaut.
The vast majority of boys and girls who gazed up into starry night skies with visions of space exploration in their heads have grown up and settled for a more down-to-earth occupation. But others pursued the dream and really did become astronauts. Three UMR graduates — Thomas D. Akers, AMth’73, MS AMth’75, Janet Kavandi, MS Chem’82, and Sandra Magnus, Phys’86, MS EE’90 — are among that elite group.
Growing up during the heyday of the U.S. space program, they watched from below with the rest of us while pioneering "right stuff" astronauts accomplished astonishing feats. Their heroes — now household names like Alan Shepard, Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Shannon Lucid — were larger-than-life characters who orbited Earth, walked on the moon, lived in space, broke down barriers, and inspired an entire generation of dreamers.
Akers, Kavandi and Magnus are part of a bridge between NASA’s storied space race past, fueled by the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the more cooperative present, in which American astronauts work with Russian cosmonauts to build the international space station.
Today, Akers, Kavandi and Magnus are helping to usher in a new era in space exploration, one that could turn the stuff of science fiction into reality — much as the pioneering astronauts did in their era. While NASA’s chief goal is to complete work on the $60 billion international space station, a job that is scheduled for completion in 2006, the work of today’s astronauts could lead to even greater achievements: inhabiting Mars, routine commercial flights into space, perhaps even the discovery of intelligent life on other planets.
Akers, Kavandi and Magnus have all played a part in the construction of the space station, and are part of a bridge between NASA’s storied space race past, fueled by the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the more cooperative present, in which American astronauts work with Russian cosmonauts to build the international space station. The three are helping to take the space program into a future limited only by the human imagination.
Akers, the first UMR graduate to enter the astronaut corps, joined NASA in 1987. It was an auspicious juncture in the program’s history — just one year after the Challenger disaster claimed the lives of seven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. Kavandi entered the program in 1995 and Magnus in 1996. Both Kavandi and Akers, who is now retired from NASA, are veterans of space flight. Magnus flew her first mission in 2002.
While other universities have produced more astronauts, the UMR trio is leaving an impressive mark on the space program.
Akers, who now teaches in UMR’s mathematics and statistics department, can be counted among NASA’s legends. He once held the American record for logging the most time walking in space, and the press has described him in heroic terms, as “the prototype of the modern astronaut, the Chuck Yeager of the new ziggurat.”
Kavandi, too, is gaining recognition for her time in space. She has embarked on three shuttle missions; the most recent was last summer=s voyage on the shuttle Atlantis to install a new passageway for the international space station. Magnus entered the fraternity of space explorers in 2002, when she took part in STS-112 to deliver equipment to help spacewalkers move around the International Space Station’s exterior.