INTERVIEW: Astronaut Nicole Mann is set to become the first Indigenous woman in space
By Levi Rickert and Andrew Kennard
NASA astronaut Nicole Mann is set to become the first Native American woman in space, with an early launch date of Oct. 3.
In the upcoming NASA and SpaceX Crew-5 mission, Mann will travel to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. She will be joined by fellow NASA astronaut Josh Cassada, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata and Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina.
Never miss the biggest stories and breaking news from Indian Country. Sign up to receive our reports straight to your inbox every weekday morning.
Mann (Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes) will be the mission commander and flight lead from launch to re-entry. She will also serve as an Expedition 68 flight engineer on the station.
On August 11, NASA said the team was in the “home stretch” of a unique 18-month training program to prepare for the scientific expedition mission. This will be SpaceX’s fifth system crew rotation mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Mann is also part of the Artemis mission to return to the moon, including the space agency’s attempt to land the first woman and person of color and establish a long-term presence on the moon. As a member of the Artemis team, Mann will help NASA prepare for the Artemis missions and be a candidate to go to the moon.
In a statement, the Round Valley Indian Tribes (RVIT) said they were “extremely proud” that Mann is continuing Indian Country’s legacy of “becoming more visible than ever in the American climate of success” for RVIT and the Wailacki people.
“Nicole has accomplished a feat few Americans dare to dream of let alone reservations,” RVIT said. “She opened a door and paved the way for Indian girls all over America, and especially the Round Valley, literally helping them set their sights, dreams and goals beyond this world, proving that there there is no limit.”
The tribes said they were planning a community watch party in his honor and wanted to celebrate by watching the launch. They also plan to hold the annual California Indian Days festival next year through next fall in honor of Mann and his continued success.
“Nicole’s pride in her heritage compels off-reservation communities to realize that there are highly accomplished Native Americans out there, including tremendously strong and powerful Native women, breaking down barriers, setting new bars, and gaining accomplishments in life. ‘elite,’ RVIT said. “For us, Nicole is at the top of the list. We look forward to reporting on the next generation of Indigenous girls and boys influenced by Nicole’s accomplishments.
In addition to Mann’s NASA career, she is a colonel in the Marine Corps who flew combat missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. She had “2,500 flight hours in 25 types of aircraft, 200 aircraft carrier arrests and 47 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan”.
Indigenous News Online editor Levi Rickert interviewed Mann on Friday, August 26, 2022. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by Native News Online. Tell our readers about your next space mission.
I’m so excited. I’m the commander of crew five, and I’ll be traveling with Josh Cassada Koichi Wakata and Ana Kinka. And we will launch from Kennedy Space Center. Right now it looks like October 3 as we shrink the launch window and head to the International Space Station. We will be there for six months as part of Expedition 68.
When did you decide to become an astronaut?
You know, for me, I didn’t realize that until a little later in my life as a young girl growing up in Northern California. I was definitely interested in math and science, but I hadn’t really realized that being an astronaut was possible. So it wasn’t until I flew jets in the Marine Corps, considering my future career options, that I started considering becoming a test pilot and, from there, an astronaut. . It took me a while to figure it all out.
Was it after you had carried out two combat missions, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq?
Yes, I participated in two combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. I flew from the aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, and we supported those overseas missions. And then really coming back from that, you kind of have to decide, okay, what’s the next step in my career path?
And I’ve always been like I mentioned, I love math and science. I studied engineering in college, and I really missed that aspect, but I love being a fighter pilot. So going to test flight school was kind of the best of both worlds for me. I could fly fighters and also study and become an engineer. And so that’s the path I’ve chosen.
You have a master’s degree from Stanford. In this mission, how will you be able to use some of this knowledge that you have?
Yes, so I studied mechanical engineering at the Naval Academy and Stanford University. And I think I will definitely have the opportunity to use it. One of the great things about being an astronaut is that you train quite a bit at all levels. So I have a background in science and medicine as well. And so when we get on board, there will be about 250 experiments by scientific investigations that will be part of everything from growing human cells to growing tomatoes in space. We will also be doing a lot of maintenance on the space station and hopefully some spacewalks to upgrade some components on the outside of the space station.
Tell our readers about the astronauts from other countries who are on this space mission.
Expedition 68 is made up of two different spacecraft crews. My crew on Crew-5, where we have two Americans, a Japanese astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut, and then we have a Soyuz spacecraft. And on this spacecraft are two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut. So all seven of us will be on board together, working together in space.
Tell us a bit about your Native American heritage. You are a tribal citizen of the Round Valley Tribes in Northern California.
Absolutely. And so I’m part of the Wailacki tribe, which is part of the Round Valley tribes in Covelo, California. And Northern California is where I was born and lived through high school until I left for college. In fact, most of my extended family still live in this area, and many still live up north in the Wailacki area near Covelo. A few months ago we had an extended family reunion where we had a lot of relatives from the North who came. They’re our second and third cousins, people I met when I was very little, and it was nice to be able to rekindle those relationships and just enjoy our time together.
Being an astronaut allows you to be a great role model for young Aboriginal people.
I hope I can be a role model, especially for this younger generation. You know, it’s important for children to realize that they can grow up in a community where there are barriers, and they need to know that those barriers are being broken down or can be broken down.
So I hope they feel empowered to be proactive in pursuing their dreams. It doesn’t matter what they are. And they realize that regardless of their race, gender or religion, these opportunities are there to be taken, and they can see the diversity that we have specifically in the astronaut corps and in my mission, and I hope they will turn to us and follow our mission.
Just prior to this interview, we received a statement from your tribe, the Round Valley Tribes. They are really excited about what you are doing.
That’s wonderful. I hope to be able to do an event with them maybe in space or when I return from space. I think it’s really important to communicate that to our community.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about your work?
I also think it’s important to point out that on Monday we (NASA) are launching a rocket and a spacecraft to the moon. It’s called Artemis, and it’s an uncrewed test flight, but it’s really part of a larger campaign to get humans back to the moon and possibly Mars.
Would you go to the Moon if NASA moved this program forward while you were still an astronaut?
It’s something I would definitely do. We have 43 active astronauts, and I think every one of them would go…we all want to be part of this mission in any way we can. It used to sound like science fiction, like you were going to walk on the moon, but now it’s a reality. When we launch on Monday, that’s really the first step. The concept now is not just to go to the moon, like we did with Apollo; the concept is to have a sustained lunar presence on the moon.
Do you enjoy an Indigenous perspective on the news?
For the past decade and more, we’ve covered important Indigenous stories that are often overlooked by other media. From the protests at Standing Rock and the toppling of colonizer statues during the racial equity protests, to the ongoing epidemic of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) and delinquent accounts related to assimilation, cultural genocide and at Indian Residential Schools, we were there to provide an Indigenous perspective and elevate Indigenous voices.
Our short stories are free to read for everyone, but they are not free to produce. That’s why we’re asking you to donate this month to support our efforts. Any contribution – large or small – helps us to remain a force for change in Indian Country and to continue to tell the stories that are so often ignored, erased or overlooked. Most often, our donors make a one-time donation of $20 or more, while many choose to make a recurring monthly donation of $5 or $10. Whatever you can do helps fund our Indigenous-led newsroom and our ability to cover Indigenous news.
Donate to Native News Online today and support independent Indigenous journalism. Thanks.