Marine Colonel Nicole Aunapu Mann made history as one of a four-member astronaut crew to blast off from Florida Wednesday, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). The 45-year-old Mann became the first Native American woman to launch into space.
Mann was joined on the SpaceX Falcon rocket by fellow NASA astronaut Josh Cassada, Japan’s Koichi Wakata, and Russia’s Anna Kikina – orbiting in a Crew Dragon capsule and set to reach the outpost in 29 hours. The mission known as Crew-5 is SpaceX’s sixth crewed flight under contract from NASA and eighth overall when including private spaceflights.
Mann, a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California, said she hopes that future generations of Native Americans can feel inspired by her mission.
“(I hope it) will inspire young Native American children to follow their dreams and realize that some of those barriers that are there or used to be there are being broken down,” she told BBC. “Anytime we are able to do something that is a first, or wasn’t done in the past, it’s so important. They have these opportunities.”
‘Instantly unites us’:Russian launches to space from US, 1st time in 20 years, amid tensions over Ukraine
This is Mann’s first spaceflight since becoming an astronaut in 2013, according to NASA. As mission commander, she’s responsible for all phases of flight, from launch to reentry.
Mann and her crew are slated to join seven others once they arrive at the space station from their rocket: four NASA and European Space Agency astronauts and three Russian cosmonauts. The flight had been delayed by Hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of the state last week.
“You’ve got three rookies that are pretty happy to be floating in space right now and one veteran astronaut happy to be back in space as well,” she said.
Mann was born in Petaluma, California, according to NASA. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University with a specialty in fluid mechanics. She is a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps and was a test pilot in the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet.
“I have a special dreamcatcher that my mother gave me which will be another little piece of my family to carry with me,” she told BBC.
Crew-5 is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which was established to replace the space shuttle’s ability to take crews to the ISS. The U.S. went without crewed spaceflight access for nearly a decade – relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft in between – until May 2020 when SpaceX launched the Demo-2 mission. Since then, SpaceX has launched six crews under that multibillion-dollar contract with NASA.
Contributing: Emre Kelly of Florida Today, Natalie Neysa Alund.