The Dragon Endurance spacecraft, built by SpaceX, launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center Wednesday afternoon, carrying a crew of astronauts from multiple nations. As the craft hurtled beyond Earth’s atmosphere en route to the International Space Station (ISS), the mission had already made history. With it, Nicole Mann became the first Native American woman to go to space.
Mann, a 45-year-old member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, is serving as mission commander for the SpaceX Crew-5 mission. The flight marked the sixth time Elon Musk’s space company has ferried astronauts to the ISS on behalf of NASA.
Her historic achievement comes 20 years after the first Native American man, John Herrington, walked in space in 2002. Mann is also the first woman to serve in the commander role during a SpaceX mission. (Only two women—Eileen Collins and Pamela Melroy—held that position on NASA space shuttle flights before the agency retired that program in 2011.)
“I feel very proud,” Mann told reporters before lift-off, as reported by the Guardian’s Maya Yang. “It’s important that we celebrate our diversity and really communicate that specifically to the younger generation.”
Born in Petaluma, California, Mann studied mechanical engineering at the United States Naval Academy, then went on to earn a master’s degree from Stanford, per NASA. She began her military career with the United States Marine Corps as a second lieutenant in 1999 and completed flight training in 2001.
In 2003, she became a naval aviator and, a year later, started her operational flying career with the military, which has included 47 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also served as a test pilot for the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet in 2009.
In total, Mann has flown more than 2,500 hours in 25 different types of aircraft and is a “proven warfighter,” as General David H. Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, described her in a statement. She is now a colonel in the Marine Corps, and she began astronaut training with NASA in 2013. She lives with her husband and their son in Houston.
For Crew-5, Mann is “the crew’s quarterback,” as Jackie Wattles writes for CNN. That means she’s responsible for “all phases of flight, from launch to re-entry,” according to NASA. While onboard the ISS, Mann will also serve as an Expedition 68 flight engineer.
On her journey into space, Mann brought a dream catcher from her mother, a surprise gift for her family and her wedding rings. She also hopes her presence will inspire future generations of astronauts from diverse backgrounds.
“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,” she told NPR’s “All Things Considered” in August.
Three other astronauts launched with Mann on the Crew-5 mission, and all will conduct an array of experiments at the ISS over the next few months. Josh Cassada, who hails from Minnesota and is making his first trip into space since becoming an astronaut in 2013, is serving as Mann’s second-in-command and the spacecraft’s pilot. Koichi Wakata, a mission specialist and astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, is making his fifth trip into space. And Anna Kikina, making her first space flight, is the first Russian cosmonaut to fly aboard a U.S. spacecraft since 2002.
After 29 hours of travel, the Crew-5 astronauts are to dock at the ISS and join the Expedition 68 crew of NASA astronauts Bob Hines, Kjell Lindgren, Frank Rubio and Jessica Watkins; European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti; and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin. Within a few days of Crew-5’s arrival, Hines, Lindgren, Watkins and Cristoforetti will return to Earth, according to NASA.
Crew-5 aims to conduct more than 200 experiments aboard the ISS, including research into fluid behavior in microgravity, cardiovascular health and 3D-printing human tissue. NASA hopes these studies will help inform the agency’s Artemis missions to the moon and, someday, its trips to Mars.