As stunts go, this one is pretty impressive: On March 14, National Geographic will broadcast for two hours, live from the International Space Station beginning at 8 p.m. EST. Hosted by Soledad O’Brien from NASA Mission Control in Houston, the special will take viewers aboard the ISS with astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Koichi Wakata, who will answer burning questions about what — and how — they eat, sleep, stay fit, use the bathroom and conduct scientific experiments.

Sandra Magnus, former NASA astronaut and current executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, knows something about that: She served aboard the ISS for four and a half months in 2008. A native of Belleville, Ill., she holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. After joining the astronaut corps in 1996, she flew in space shuttle missions in 2002 before her ISS stint. Not surprisingly, she’s pretty excited about “Live From Space.”

Sarah Magnus's official NASA portrait, 2002MNN: How important and significant is “Live From Space” for the space program’s present and future?

Sandra Magnus: I think any time we can share what we are doing in space, whether that is a live broadcast like “Live From Space” or talking to astronauts after we return from a mission, it’s a great thing to do. People are interested in — and proud of — what our country is doing in space and want to hear about it.

What are the biggest obstacles to the future of space exploration and work at the International Space Station? What will the special do to change that?

The biggest obstacle to the future of space exploration is lack of a national will and the appropriate funding to invest in our future. What we are doing in space is important. But with the noise of day-to-day living, it is hard for people to spend a lot of time trying to find out what is going on above them. Having programs like “Live From Space” gives everyone a chance to learn about the great things that are occurring.

What experiments are underway at the ISS that could benefit humankind?

One of the more interesting things we are finding is that viruses and bacteria become much more virulent in microgravity. Extensive experiments on the ISS have shown this to be true for a variety of bugs. By studying these changes, it helps scientists to understand the mechanisms behind the diseases and identify treatments.

Why did you want to become an astronaut?

I wanted to fly in space and see our planet. I wanted to be on the edge of what humans could achieve and help push that boundary further— to explore and discover what we are capable of.

What made you think you could do it?

The first six female astronauts were chosen when I started high school. I remember thinking that “Now I don’t have to break down that door.” I had no idea whether or not I could be an astronaut, but I decided to try. You never know what is possible if you don’t try!

How much training was involved, and how hard was it?

As a new astronaut we had about two years of general training. For a space shuttle mission there was a year of specific training. For my ISS mission I trained for 3.5 years (although now the training profile is about 2.5 years or so). I really felt like I never left school. I was responsible for learning all kinds of stuff and then showing that I understood it, just like school. It was a lot of fun and always challenging.

How rewarding was it to be a role model for women who came after you?

I think it is very important to encourage all young people to follow their dreams. All of us who have been privileged to fly into space are very engaged with encouraging young people to study hard, dream and succeed.

The International Space Station

Photo: National Geographic Channel

What was it like seeing Earth from space for the first time? Did that ever get old, or does it remain wondrous?

We have an amazing planet and it looks very fragile — really, there is only a very thin eggshell of air around it keeping us alive. It never gets old or stale to look at. It is ever-hanging and beautiful.

Was the thought of leaving Earth ever scary to you?

Nope, it was something I had dreamed of doing since I was in middle school.

What was the most rewarding part of the job?

That’s a tough one. So much of the job was rewarding: constantly learning new things, working in an international environment, learning languages, completing missions and encouraging young people to strive for their dreams.

What was the most challenging part of the job?

I found the spacewalk training very challenging because the suits were not necessarily designed for women, and we have to learn to compensate for that. It is mentally and physically challenging.

What did you miss most while at the ISS?

Being outside with a fresh breeze and the smells of Earth — and salad and ice cream.

The International Space Station

Photo: National Geographic Channel

Did it get claustrophobic in orbit?

No, the ISS is huge!

What would people be most surprised to know about the ISS?

It is loud on the ISS. All of the equipment, fans, computers, valves, etc., make noise. You get used to it, but there is always a bit of white noise in the background.

What do you hope viewers of “Live From Space” take away?

A sense of wonder and excitement about what humans can achieve when we put our minds to it. We have people living in space! And have had for 14 years now!

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Sarah Magnus portrait: NASA/Wikimedia Commons