SpaceX this week launched a crewed spacecraft to the International Space Station, making spaceflight history in the process. Nicole Mann—who is heading the expedition as mission commander—became the first Native American woman in space, twenty years after John Herrington made history as the first Native American man to walk in space, reports NPR. The SpaceX Dragon spaceship carrying Mann’s Crew-5 mission took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday. In addition to Mann, the team includes Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina, America’s Josh Cassada, and Japan’s Koichi Wakata. During the six-month mission, the four astronauts intend to carry out more than 200 experiments, including spacewalks and 3D printing human tissue.
Mann tweeted about her take off on October 4, writing: “Looking forward to launch tomorrow. Let’s do this!” As we previously reported, in an earlier interview she talked about what this milestone means for young people from indigenous communities. “It’s very exciting,” she said about being the first Native woman in space. “I think it’s important that we communicate this to our community, so that other Native kids, if they thought maybe that this was not a possibility or to realize that some of those barriers that used to be there are really starting to get broken down.”
She added: “These young women, maybe Natives, maybe people from different backgrounds that realize that they have these opportunities and [that] potentially these barriers that used to be there are starting to be broken down. And so hopefully that will inspire that younger generation.”
Mann, a Wailacki member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in Northern California, attended Stanford University to study mechanical engineering. She rose through the ranks of the Marine Corps to the position of colonel, flying different fighter aircraft along the way. Six medals have been awarded to her for her service to the American military, which includes two tours of duty on aircraft carriers in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, in 2020, she was selected to be a member of a group of astronauts who were eligible for NASA’s Artemis mission, which will transport astronauts to the Moon.
Mann stated that she wished to bring some memorabilia from home on her extensive space travel. “I do have some personal mementos, you know, jewelry charms that I plan to bring. I have some special gifts for my family, which I can’t say because they’re a surprise. And then I do have this dream catcher that my mother gave me long ago,” she said. “And that’s always just, you know, a little bit, a piece, a memory, I think, of my family back home. And that’s something that I’ll keep with me in my crew quarters while I’m on board [the] space station.”
Before taking off, Mann spoke to The Guardian of her historic journey. “I feel very proud,” she said, relaying a crucial message for diversity and inclusion. “It’s important that we celebrate our diversity and really communicate that specifically to the younger generation.” Addressing the excitement her tour has caused in some Native American communities, she added: “That’s really, I think, an audience that we don’t get an opportunity to reach out to very often.”
Mann wants younger indigenous people to know they should pursue all their dreams. She said, “Never discount yourself. If you don’t go after a dream or a goal and if you don’t try, you’re never going to make it. You know, pursue that topic in school, ask for help, meet people that have done that job to learn more about it. You’ll grow so much as a child into an adult, and your interests will vary quite a bit.”