Trailblazer Nicole Aunapu Mann to lead team to space station

Nicole Aunapu Mann in flight suit in training cockpit (© SpaceX/NASA)
SpaceX Crew-5 Commander Nicole Aunapu Mann from NASA attends a Crew Dragon cockpit training session at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. (© SpaceX/NASA)

When astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann launches from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on an October 5 spaceflight that will orbit Earth, members of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in Northern California will be cheering.

As a member of the Wailacki tribe, one of several that make up the Round Valley confederation, Mann will make them proud. She will be not only the first female Native American in space, but the first to lead a NASA mission to the International Space Station.

“Nicole has accomplished a feat that few Americans dare to dream and many fewer from the reservations,” Round Valley Tribal Business Administrator Linda Sacks said in an email. “She has opened a door and blazed a trail for Indian girls all over America, and especially from Round Valley … helping them set their sights, dreams and goals beyond this world, proving there is no limit.”

Mann has been training for almost a decade to prepare for this mission. In 2013, she was one of eight out of more than 6,000 applicants that NASA selected to be part of a new group of astronauts preparing to return to the moon, to Mars and to other locations in the solar system.

Mann is set to command a crew of three that will travel to the space station on a spacecraft made by the Hawthorne, California–based company SpaceX. Once there, the group is scheduled to live on the station for six months, conduct research, take walks outside of the station to prepare for moon walks, and train for longer-term missions to the moon and to Mars.

“I’m extremely excited,” Mann, 45, told Reuters. “It has been a long journey, but it’s been well worth it.”

Mann lives in Houston with her son and her husband, Travis Mann, but her extended family (and fan club) still lives in Northern California. When Mann was young, her mother gave her a dream catcher, a wooden hoop with thread webbing. Mann will carry it with her on the space mission.

“I do have this dream catcher that my mother gave me long ago,” Mann told NPR. “And that’s always just, you know, a little bit — a piece memory, I think — of my family back home. … something that I’ll keep with me in my crew quarters while I’m on board the space station.”

Nicole Aunapu Mann in blue space uniform giving thumbs-up gesture (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Nicole Aunapu Mann gives a thumbs-up during a 2018 event at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Mann graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1999 and a master’s in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in 2001. The summer of her junior year at the U.S. Naval Academy, she nabbed a chance to fly an F-18 Hornet combat aircraft, cementing her desire to become a fighter pilot for the U.S. Marine Corps. Mann carried out 47 combat missions and has over 2,500 flight hours in 25 types of aircraft and 200 carrier landings.

Still, Mann hadn’t thought about becoming an astronaut until 2011, when NASA put out the call for new astronauts and she realized that she met all the qualifications for the job. Her husband encouraged her to apply.

“I was interested in math and science, and I thought it’d be really cool to go to space one day,” Mann told National Native News. But she did not seriously entertain the idea of becoming an astronaut, she said, because she had not seen anyone from her background or community who had done something like that.

Mann, who is a candidate to be one of the first women on the moon, hopes that now that she is blazing a trail, more women and Native Americans will pursue the astronaut route.

While the latest data is more than a decade old, it shows that only a negligible share of NASA employees were Native American or Alaska Natives at that time. Mann hopes young Native kids today “are looking and seeing what amazing opportunities that they have in front of them.” She says that a lot of the barriers that used to exist are being broken down.

Mann’s launch will be carried live on NASA television October 5.