This Marine Corps colonel went from flying fighter jets to space exploration.

This Marine Corps colonel went from flying fighter jets to space exploration.

As a child growing up in Northern California, Marine Corps Col. Nicole Mann looked at the stars and wondered if she could explore them herself. But becoming an astronaut never seemed like a serious possibility to him.

“It seemed so far away that other people would have the opportunity,” she recalls.

But in 2022, Mann has an opportunity.

A former NASA astronaut, she led a multinational team to the International Space Station for about six months, where she and her teammates conducted scientific experiments and technology demonstrations to improve humanity’s life in space. We have developed knowledge that can be used in And on Earth too.

Mann, who was named 2024 Marine of the Year by Military Times, knew from an early age that he wanted to serve in the military. And as a Naval Academy cadet, she found herself drawn to the sense of honor and tradition that is central to Marine Corps culture. According to her official biography, she received her commission in 1999.

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

While working as a test pilot, she learned that NASA was recruiting for the astronaut class. The highly selective application process lasted about a year and a half.

When Mann finally received the call welcoming her to the astronaut class, she had to ask herself a question. Did this really just happen?

After intensive astronaut candidate training, Mann was eventually named commander of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission.

Mann said the year leading up to the launch in October 2022 was a busy one, including preparations for military deployment. She had to prepare for space walks, science experiments, maintenance, robotics, and more. No two training days were the same for her.

During that time, she had to prepare for the extended absence of her family, including her young son.

On the day of takeoff, she and her crew joked that the Endurance spaceship was like a simulator. Maybe she’ll have NASA staff open the hatch and say, “Just kidding, this is just a training event.”

Then the rocket ignited. The G was transmitted through his chest, unlike in a fighter jet where the G is transmitted through the head. She felt the force behind her and heard the roar of her engine.

But once the second stage engine shut down, it went silent. She felt herself floating. She and her crew cheered, “We’ve reached space.”

“When you think about the sheer number of people on the planet and the teams of people working to remove humanity from the planet, it’s really incredible,” Mann said. “Holy cow, I was reminded that humans are amazing.”

Mann said being in space reminded him of his military deployment, in that he was busy continuing to do what he had spent years training for.

But it was different, she said, in that it looked at the best in humanity instead of the worst. Her crew, including cosmonauts from Russia, worked together toward a common goal.

For Mann, the culmination of the months-long mission was the opportunity to perform a spacewalk. However, things didn’t go as planned at first.

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

During the first spacewalk, we encountered mechanical interference while attaching the final support to the structure. After about seven and a half hours, they had to return to the station.

After troubleshooting and working with teams on Earth, Mann and Wakata tried again on February 2, 2023. During the spacewalk, which lasted more than six-and-a-half hours, the pair managed to attach the prop.

“I remember being so frustrated and so disappointed the first time I went back to the front door not being able to complete the mission, and then feeling so proud and really amazed at the teamwork of everyone on the ground to overcome that obstacle. “I remember being there,” Mann said.

In March 2023, the Endurance washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

With her journey across Earth, Mann, a member of the Wairacki Round Valley Indian Tribe, became the first Native American woman to travel to space.

Is it something she hopes younger generations of Native Americans will learn from her accomplishments? Never underestimate yourself.

“When you’re a kid, you should have dreams,” she said. “If you want to explore, if you want to go to the stars, it’s within your reach.”

For the past 23 years, the Military Personnel of the Year Award has recognized one outstanding military member from each branch of the military (active duty, Guard or Reserve). They are selected based on exemplary military service above and beyond the call of duty. Honorees and their families will visit the nation’s capital and be flown to Washington, D.C., for a special awards ceremony attended by Congressional, military and community leaders. The award ceremony will be held on April 24, 2024. To watch the live stream of the event, Register here.

See all Military Times’ 2024 Military Personnel of the Year award winners.

Eileen Lowenson is a staff reporter at Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an Editorial Fellow in her August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College and served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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