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The first Native American woman ever to travel to Earth’s orbit will take flight this week on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. The astronaut, NASA’s Nicole Aunapu Mann, will serve as mission commander.
The former US Marine Corps pilot’s role can be thought of as the crew’s quarterback.
Mann’s historic journey — and her first trip to space since joining NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013 — is on track to kick off Wednesday at 12 p.m. ET, when Mann and her three crewmates will ride in their spacecraft atop a 230-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) SpaceX rocket set to take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They’ll travel to the International Space Station for a five-month stay, joining a long list of astronauts to serve as full-time staff aboard the orbiting laboratory, which has hosted humans for nearly 22 years.
On her trip, Mann will carry some mementos: her wedding rings, a surprise gift for her family, and a dream catcher that her mother gave her.
“That will be a special part of my childhood and of my community and my family,” Mann told reporters during a news conference Saturday, just after arriving by plane to the launch site.
Her crewmates will also represent a broad swath of cultural backgrounds. She’ll fly alongside fellow NASA astronaut Josh Cassada, who is from Minnesota; Koichi Wakata of Japan’s space agency, called JAXA, or Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; and Anna Kikina, a Roscomos cosmonaut who joined this mission as part of a US-Russian ride-sharing agreement.
“I am very proud to represent Native Americans and my heritage,” Mann said. “I think it’s important to celebrate our diversity and also realize how important it is when we collaborate and unite, the incredible accomplishments that we can have.”
From Northern California to NASA
Mann grew up in Northern California and is a registered member of the Wailacki tribe of the Round Valley reservation, which encompasses several Indigenous tribes that were forced onto the same post-colonial reservation in the mid-1800s.
“A lot of my extended family still lives in that area,” Mann told Indian Country Today in August. “We actually got together a couple of weeks ago for a family reunion. So it’s really important, I think, for us to continue to create those bonds.”
A colonel in the Marine Corps, Mann began a military career as a second lieutenant in 1999, according to NASA’s website. Two years later, she began flight training and went on serve two deployments, supporting combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to NASA. She then earned a spot as a test pilot, flying F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet aircraft.
Mann said she realized only later in life that she wanted to be an astronaut — and that such a role was feasible.
“I was in my mid 20s,” she told reporters in August. “I realized that being an astronaut was not only something that was a possible dream, but actually something that’s quite attainable. I think as a young girl, I just didn’t realize that that was an opportunity and a possibility.”
After being selected for NASA’s astronaut corps in 2013, Mann waited years to be assigned to a mission. And after being slotted into her role on Crew-5, Mann spent 18 months in intensive training, including practicing spacewalks underwater and studying Russian to better communicate with her cosmonaut counterparts.
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Diversity in space
Mann’s mission, dubbed Crew-5, will mark the sixth astronaut launch that SpaceX has carried out in partnership with NASA since 2020 as part of a broader effort to outsource human spaceflight and other ISS activities to the private sector.
In her role as commander, Mann will be responsible for ensuring the spacecraft is on track from the time it launches until it docks with the ISS and again when it returns home with the four Crew-5 astronauts next year. Never before has a woman taken on the commander role on a SpaceX mission, though a couple women served in that position during the Space Shuttle Program, which NASA retired in 2011.
In the years after NASA was formed in the mid-20th century, astronauts were all White men — even through the final days of the space agency’s famed Apollo program. That only changed when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983, and she was followed shortly after by the first Black person in space, Guion Bluford.
READ MORE: Meet the space trailblazers of color who empowered others to dream
Since then, NASA has worked to make its astronaut corps more diverse. The space agency’s new, cornerstone human spaceflight program, called Artemis, aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon.
The Artemis program hasn’t taken off yet, as NASA is still working to get its mega moon rocket off the ground. But Mann was selected as one of 18 astronauts that could be assigned to the program’s first moon landing mission.
The diverse group of Artemis astronauts have been taking turns traveling to the ISS, where they conduct science experiments and keep of the maintenance of the aging space station as well as prepare for a possible journey to deep space later this decade.
“What we are going to do in low-Earth orbit is a stepping stone to achieve those goals of exploration into deep space,” Mann said, using the term “low-Earth orbit” to refer to the area of space where the ISS orbits. “We’re going to gain a ton of experience flying in low-Earth orbit, and any of us could be assigned to an Artemis mission in the future. And hopefully we’ll walk on the moon together one day. “
On Saturday, Mann also commented on the importance of having astronauts with a wide range of experiences and backgrounds.
“We hope that this will inspire young children throughout the world that come from varying, different backgrounds,” she said. “In fact, I hope it inspires adults as well to follow your dreams and to realize that the limitations that we may have had in the past are starting to be broken down.”