This Marine colonel went from flying fighter jets to exploring space

by Tommy Grant

As a child growing up in Northern California, Marine Col. Nicole Mann would look at the stars and wonder if she could ever explore them herself. But becoming an astronaut never seemed like a serious possibility.

“It seemed like some far, far distant thing that other people got a chance to do,” she recalled.

But in 2022, Mann got her chance.

Serving as a NASA astronaut, she led a multinational team into space for a nearly six-month stay aboard the International Space Station, where she and her teammates conducted scientific experiments and technological demonstrations to develop knowledge that human beings could use to improve life in space and on Earth.

Mann, Military Times’ 2024 Marine of the Year, knew early on that she wanted to serve in the military. And as a Naval Academy midshipman, she felt pulled toward the sense of honor and tradition that are central to Marine Corps culture. She received her commission in 1999, according to her official biography.

Mann became an F/A-18 pilot, and put the training into practice by flying 47 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and then by serving as a test pilot, according to her bio. She has accrued more than 2,700 flight hours in 25 types of aircraft.

While a test pilot, she learned that applications had opened for NASA’s astronaut class. The extremely selective application process lasted about a year and a half.

When she finally got the phone call welcoming her to the astronaut class, Mann had to ask herself: “Is this really happening? Did this really just happen?”

Following the intensive astronaut candidate training, Mann ultimately was assigned to be commander of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission.

The year leading up to the October 2022 launch was busy, like the workup to a military deployment, Mann said. She had to prepare for spacewalks, scientific experiments, maintenance, robotics and more. No two days of training were the same.

Meanwhile, she had to prepare her family, including her young son, for the long absence.

On the day of the takeoff, she and her crewmates joked that their spacecraft, Endurance, felt just like their simulator — maybe NASA staff would open the hatch and tell them, “Just kidding, this was just another training event.”

Then the rocket lit. Unlike in a fighter jet, where G forces come through her head, the G forces came through her chest. She could feel the power behind her and hear the engine’s roar.

But when the second-stage engine cut off, it was quiet. She felt herself float up. She and her crewmates cheered: They had made it to space.

“You think about the massive amount of people on Earth and the team of folks that work to get humans off the planet — it’s absolutely incredible,” Mann said. “It just hits you that, holy cow, humans are amazing.”

Being in space reminded Mann of her military deployments in that she was kept busy doing what she had spent years training to do.

Yet it differed, she said, in that she saw the best of humanity, rather than the worst. Her crewmates, including cosmonauts from Russia, worked together with a common goal.

For Mann, a pinnacle of the monthslong mission was the opportunity to do a spacewalk. But it didn’t go as planned at first.

She and Koichi Wakata of Japan exited the station on Jan. 20, 2023, to install a support structure for a new solar array.

During their first spacewalk, they were installing the final strut on the structure when they faced mechanical interference. After nearly seven and a half hours, they had to return inside the station.

After working with a team on Earth to troubleshoot, Mann and Wakata tried again, on Feb. 2, 2023. During that spacewalk, which lasted more than six and a half hours, the pair managed to install that strut.

“I remember feeling so frustrated and so disappointed when we came back in the door that first time not accomplishing the mission, and then so proud and so absolutely amazed by the teamwork of everybody on the ground to overcome that obstacle,” Mann said.

In March 2023, the Endurance splashed down off the coast of Florida.

The trip beyond Earth made Mann, who is registered with the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, the first Native American woman in space.

The lesson she hopes younger generations of Native Americans take away from her accomplishments? Never discount yourself.

“As a kid, you should dream,” she said. “If you want to explore, if you want to go to the stars, that’s something that’s within your reach.”

For the past 23 years, Service Members of the Year awards have honored one outstanding military (active duty, Guard or Reserve) member from each branch of service. They are selected based on exemplary military service that goes beyond the call of duty. The honorees and their families are being flown to Washington, D.C., for a visit to the nation’s capital and a special awards ceremony attended by congressional, military and community leaders. The awards ceremony will take place on April 24, 2024. To watch the livestream of the event, register here.

See all of Military Times’ 2024 Service Members of the Year honorees.

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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