Becoming a Marine is no small feat, so becoming a Marine turned astronaut might simply sound out of this world.
Not, however, for Col. Nicole Mann, 45, a former F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet test pilot who will lead the upcoming SpaceX Crew-5 team to the International Space Station.
“It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, flying jets in the Marine Corps, that I realized that being an astronaut was not only something that was a possible dream, but was actually something that was quite attainable,” Mann said during a team press conference Aug. 4.
While she is not the first woman ― or Marine ― to travel to space, Mann’s journey to reach the stars nonetheless demonstrates her remarkable commitment to serve her country and the world.
‘You can physically push through’
Born in Petaluma, California, Mann was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1999 following her graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. She later attended Stanford University and The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia.
While her father served in Vietnam, it was the concept of being a part of something larger than herself that really pushed Mann to join the military.
Her career includes more than 2,500 flight hours in 25 types of aircraft and 47 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to her NASA bio.
In 2013, Mann was selected as one of eight in the 21st NASA astronaut class.
“Having that foundation as a Marine to know, you can physically push through, you can mentally push through, that’s really prepared me for all this training that I have at NASA and preparing for a flight into space,” Mann said in an interview with Marine Corps Times.
While she said it was “tough to compare” whether her training to join the Marine Corps or NASA was more difficult, she noted that her time in the service really helped her learn how to properly compartmentalize.
“Training for a space flight is similar to work ups for a deployment,” Mann said. “There’s times when I really need to focus on my job and then other times when I need to focus on myself or my family.”
The SpaceX Crew-5 team will be the fifth NASA commercial crew flight on a Crew Dragon spacecraft. They will join the Crew-4 team, which launched in April, to the International Space Station, the largest modular space station currently in low Earth orbit.
It will use a Falcon 9 rocket and launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the fall.
As mission commander, Mann will be responsible for all phases of the flight, from launch to re-entry.
While aboard the space station she will serve as an Expedition 68 flight engineer. She also will make history on the mission as the first native woman in space, according to Indian Country Today.
Mann will be joined on the flight by former naval aviator Josh Cassada, veteran Japanese space traveler Koichi Wakata and cosmonaut Anna Kikina, who joined the team in July.
“We are ready to go and it amazes me each time I stop to think about the enormous number of people that are involved in preparing us for this mission,” Mann said during the team press conference.
Earlier that day, during another press conference with NASA leadership, NASA’s Commercial Crew program manager Steve Stich explained how the team is actively preparing for its upcoming launch but due to other ongoing operations the official launch date may be pushed back.
“Right now, we’re targeting a launch no earlier than the 29 of September,” Stich said. “I suspect we’ll adjust that date.”
Astronauts from the Crew-4 mission will then return to Earth in October.
Military in space
Aside from Mann, many active duty and former Marine Corps service members have left earth’s atmosphere.
The the National Museum of the Marine Corps on Aug. 13 hosted a panel with many notable Marine astronauts to discuss their journeys from the Marine Corps to NASA.
The group consisted of Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden, the former NASA chief, Col. Robert D. Cabana, current associate administrator at NASA, and Sgt. Joseph M. Acaba, the first Puerto Rican in space.
The event corresponded with a new exhibit at the museum with artifacts and photos of Marine astronauts that will run through January 2024, according to a press release.
In addition to her upcoming Crew-5 mission, Mann has also been selected to join NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to perform the first lunar landing mission since 1972.
In a callback to Greek mythology, the mission draws its name from the lunar goddess Artemis — the twin sister of the sun god Apollo, whose name inspired the historic series of moon landings decades earlier. This time, however, the human spaceflight aims to put the first woman on the moon, which could very well be Mann.
On Dec. 9, 2020, then Vice President Mike Pence announced a team of astronauts, including Mann, who could be selected for Artemis program missions.
“I think a lot of people sometimes will ask, ‘how does it feel to be a female astronaut or a female Marine?’ and I think it’s important that young girls realize that they have these leadership opportunities for them,” Mann said during the press conference. “But from an operational perspective, to be honest, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man, or what country you’re from or your gender or your race. We are coming together as a human race.”
Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media