National Native American Heritage Month: Nicole Aunapu Mann, Test Pilot and NASA Astronaut

In October 2022, NASA astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann became the first enrolled female member of a Native American tribe to travel into space. John Herrington, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, had made history in 2002 as the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space. (William R. Pogue, who traveled into space during the 1970s as the pilot for the Skylab 4 mission, was of Choctaw ancestry; however, he was not an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation.)

Mann, who is of Wailaki ancestry, is an enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in California. She was born on June 27, 1977, in the community of Penngrove in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mann graduated from Rancho Cotate High School in the city of Rohnert Park, California, in 1995. She received an appointment to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated from there in 1999 with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. After commissioning in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), Mann attended graduate school at Stanford University and earned a master of science degree in mechanical engineering (with a specialty in fluid mechanics).

Mann subsequently attended the Basic School in Quantico, Virginia. (This school provides training and education for newly commissioned or appointed USMC officers.) In yet another key development in her military career, she underwent flight training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola in Florida. Mann received her naval aviator wings in 2002. She then completed training for the F/A-18 Hornet — a twin-engine, supersonic combat aircraft — at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She also attended and graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at NAS Patuxent in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, and served as an F/A-18 Hornet at that air station.

Mann’s military accomplishments ultimately included more than 2,500 flight hours in a total of 25 types of aircraft and 200 carrier landings. In addition, she flew 47 combat missions altogether in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a test pilot, Mann also began weighing a possible career as an astronaut more than she ever had before. “It was a little bit later on in life actually that I realized that being an astronaut was an opportunity and something that I could do,” Mann said in an interview with ICT News (previously known as Indian Country Today). “To be honest, I didn’t understand when I was younger what astronauts actually did.”

In 2013, Mann was selected for the NASA astronaut program. As a candidate in this program, she was one of the eight members of Astronaut Group 21. Mann completed her training in 2015. She has since served in such positions as safety and training officer; and assistant to the chief of exploration. Mann’s contributions have also included helping to work on the development of the Space Launch System; the Exploration Ground Systems; and the Orion spacecraft.

For her first spaceflight, Mann is serving as commander of Space X Crew 5. This mission is the fifth crewed operational NASA Commercial Crew Program flight of a Crew Dragon spacecraft. It has the additional distinction of being the eighth overall crewed orbital flight. This mission began with the launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft Endurance (Dragon C210) from the Kennedy Space Center on October 5, 2022. Mann and the other three crew members on board Dragon C210 arrived and docked at the International Space Station on October 6. They will be spending about six months there to conduct a large number of scientific investigations.

Not long before the start of this pioneering expedition into space, Mann said in an interview with BBC that she hopes the mission “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.” Mann further noted, “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.”

In another potential trailblazing role for her, Mann is among those astronauts under serious consideration to become the first woman on the Moon as part of a planned trip there in 2025. In a 2020 interview with National Geographic, Mann underscored her aspiration to be that astronaut. At one point in that interview, she discussed how she and her son Jack frequently go outside to view the Moon. Mann remarked, “Hopefully someday, he’ll be able to watch Mom fly by and walk on the Moon.”

Photo Credit: NASA

For more information on Nicole Aunapu Mann, please check out

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