As of March 2022, only 75 women have ever flown in space, according to NASA. Humankind has only been capable of such flight for about 60 years, but it took decades for women to have equal opportunities to test their scientific knowledge and courage in the great beyond. The NASA astronaut class of 2013 was the first to include equal numbers of men and women. In 2022, one member of that class—astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann—will set a record of her own as the first Native American woman to fly in space.
Mann, of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, was selected in 2013 to be a NASA astronaut after a distinguished stint studying mechanical engineering at Stanford and flying fighter jets for the Marine Corps. Deployed in the past to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Mann has accumulated six medals for her service. She will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) on September 29, 2022 on the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. This Crew-5 mission is her first space flight, as it often takes years for astronauts to get the relevant training. Mann will serve in the critical role of mission commander.
Entering space, Mann will join the illustrious ranks of astronauts like Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and an LGBTQ astronaut, and Jeanette Epps, the first Black woman to staff the ISS. While she is only allowed to carry 3.3 pounds of personal items into space, Mann plans to take a dreamcatcher her mother gave her. Dreamcatchers are steeped in indigenous history, culture, and spirituality—sacred objects not to be taken lightly.
“It's very exciting,” Mann told Indian Country Today. “I think it's important that we communicate this to our community, so that other Native kids…realize that some of those barriers that used to be there are really starting to get broken down.”
Onboard the ISS, the team will conduct 250 scientific experiments for NASA, continuing to build the knowledge base for all mankind. Mann will be building upon the legacy of John Herrington, an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, who became the first Native American NASA astronaut in space in 2002. Mann's space career may only be just getting started. In 2020, she was chosen as part of the Artemis team of elite NASA astronauts eligible for selection for early Moon missions. Of thousands of applicants, Mann may have a chance to step on the Moon. For now, her leap spaceward is a chance to celebrate Indigenous women in STEM.
NASA astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann, of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, will become the first Native American woman in space.
Mann will be mission commander, a critical position and an example of Indigenous leadership in STEM.