In a groundbreaking achievement set to unfold this autumn, Nicole Aunapu Mann is poised to etch her name in history as the first Native American woman to venture into space. Scheduled to lead NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on October 3rd, Mann, a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, reflects on her journey with a sense of pride. Embracing the opportunity to represent Native American women at NASA, Mann hopes her story serves as a beacon for aspiring individuals, emphasizing that barriers for women and minorities in esteemed careers, including space exploration, are diminishing.
Having ascended to the rank of astronaut in 2013, Mann, now 45, expresses her excitement about the upcoming mission. As the mission commander of the SpaceX Dragon Endurance spacecraft, she will oversee all aspects of the journey, from launch to a safe return to Earth. Additionally, NASA reports that Mann will serve as an Expedition 68 flight engineer on the ISS.
Accompanying Mann on the Crew-5 mission are fellow astronauts Josh Cassada of NASA, Koichi Wakata of JAXA, and Anna Kikina of Roscosmos. The crew’s six-month stay in space will involve conducting approximately 250 scientific experiments, a prospect that fills Mann with anticipation for potential discoveries benefiting human evolution.
One aspect of the mission that particularly captivates Mann is the biofabrication lab, which involves 3D printing human tissue. Enthusiastically, she shares insights with NPR, detailing the possibilities of growing organs in space. The team will also undertake tasks such as upgrading solar arrays on the ISS and, excitingly for Mann, a couple of spacewalks. Recalling the physically and mentally demanding spacewalk training, she likens it to a cross between scuba diving and navigating a jungle gym.
Mann’s journey to becoming an astronaut wasn’t always a lifelong dream. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1999, she embarked on a career in the U.S. Marine Corps. It was during her time as a pilot flying F/A-18 fighter jets that she contemplated her future aspirations. A visit to NASA during her training at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School marked a turning point, sparking her interest in a career as an astronaut.
Selected by NASA in 2013, Mann has since risen through the ranks, currently serving as a colonel. Beyond the upcoming Crew-5 mission, Mann’s journey extends to the Artemis program, where she was chosen as one of eighteen astronauts to return to the Moon. If selected for the Artemis III crewed mission in 2025, Mann could become the first woman to set foot on the Moon.
Reflecting on the possibility of making history on the lunar surface, Mann emphasizes the collective mission, expressing her overwhelming sense of excitement to contribute in any role. The Artemis III mission targets the Moon’s South Pole, a previously unexplored region, adding another layer of anticipation to Mann’s galactic aspirations.
In conclusion, Nicole Aunapu Mann’s imminent voyage into space symbolizes a historic milestone as the first Native American woman in space. As she guides the SpaceX Crew-5 mission and eyes a potential lunar landing with the Artemis program, Mann’s journey serves as an inspiring testament to perseverance, breaking barriers, and reaching for the stars. Her story is not just about personal achievement but underscores the collective pursuit of knowledge and exploration.
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