Q&A: Nicole Aunapu Mann talks moon mission, challenging barriers to diversity in space travel

Nicole Aunapu Mann M.S. ’01 was selected as a member of the Artemis mission in early December, which aims to put the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. Mann received her master of science in mechanical engineering from Stanford after attending the Naval Academy and commissioning in the U.S. Marine Corps, where she piloted an F/A-18 Hornet, a fighter and attack aircraft. Mann was selected as one of eight members of a selective group of astronauts known as the NASA Astronaut Group 21 in 2013, completed her training in 2015, and is currently a test pilot for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, a spacecraft which will transport astronauts to the International Space Station. 

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you first become interested in flying and aeronautics? 

Nicole Aunapa Mann (NAM): Growing up I had never met an astronaut and I didn’t know exactly what they did. Like most kids I loved looking at the stars and pondering space exploration, but I didn’t have enough exposure to realize what the possibilities were. In high school, my sophomore year, I started becoming interested in the military. I knew I wanted to go to a good school and I really liked math and science — I wanted to be an engineer. I also played soccer. I ended up choosing the Naval Academy, which was the best of all of those worlds. 

It wasn’t until many years later when I was flying F/A-18’s in the Marine Corps that I started looking at potential career options. I missed the engineering side of life, so then I started looking at becoming a test pilot. That was awesome because I was able to use my military background to help develop and test new weapons systems and flight control laws on jet aircrafts. During that time I got a tour of NASA and I started to understand what the possibilities of becoming an astronaut were. 

TSD: Can you talk a bit about the Artemis mission? 

NAM: The Artemis mission is incredibly exciting. It is our next effort in human exploration of space, and we are going to send the first woman and the next man to walk on the moon by 2024. And it’s so much more than that — it is a stepping stone for our exploration of Mars. It is not just the United States, it is truly an international endeavor. We are going there to have sustained presence on the lunar surface. We aren’t talking about a mission that goes, takes some samples and then comes back. We are talking about building a structure in lunar orbit called The Gateway, and also building habitats on the surface of the moon from which we can explore, we can develop science and technology and we can also develop the operational concepts that we will need to live and work farther from Earth, and eventually on Mars. Really what we are developing is this autonomous capability to have a partnership between humans and robots. These could be rovers or other scientific platforms or computers that allow us to do these jobs. 

TSD: How did being in the Marine Corps help prepare you for your work with NASA? 

NAM: Being a Marine gave me a great foundation. It teaches you everything from the basics of time management to the ability to compartmentalize when you are launching a jet or flying combat mission. That discipline and that ability to compartmentalize and manage one’s time has laid the foundation for my successes later in life: juggling being an astronaut with having a family. Having a husband and a child, balancing my work life from my personal life. It’s a very similar thing when training for space flight: You study, you train, and when you’re there you need to execute, and you need to execute flawlessly. 

TSD: What excites you most about your recent work as an astronaut, whether it be testing the Starliner CST-100 or working on the Artemis mission?

NAM: Right now I’m training as a test pilot aboard Starliner, and that is part of a Commercial Crew Program which is a partnership between SpaceX and Boeing. Each of those companies are building spacecraft to take astronauts to the International Space Station. I will be flying on the first test flight of a crewed mission in the Starliner to the International Space Station. That is really incredible because it is not like typical government contracts where you just subcontract out to a company to build something. NASA has contracted these companies for this service. 

This allows for the commercialization of low-Earth orbit. NASA is now turning over transportation of astronauts to the International Space Station to the commercial industry, and this allows NASA to focus on deep-space exploration like the Artemis mission and eventually a mission to Mars. It also is going to open up this world of low-Earth orbit. You’re going to see this expand to commercial companies conducting scientific research on the International Space Station or smaller space stations that are commercially owned. What this will do is open up space to people that are not astronauts. I think in the near future you’ll see more scientists going to space, as well as journalists, artists and people that are developing technology. It is really a new frontier that is going to be accessible to the human race.

TSD: What does it mean to you to be among the first women to go to the moon? 

NAM: It is incredibly exciting. If you look at the Artemis team, it is such a diverse group of people, and that highlights the diversity that we have in the United States. You see folks from many different backgrounds: scientists, military pilots, engineers. These people are men and women as well as all different races and religions. It is very exciting because it is another example of barriers we had in the past that are truly being broken down. I hope younger generations will look at the Artemis team and see somebody that reminds them of themselves. That’s something that I didn’t have as a kid. When I looked up at these space explorers, I didn’t realize that was a possibility for me. I hope that the younger generation will be able to follow our mission and dream, and that it will inspire them to reach their goals in life, whatever that may be. 

TSD: What advice would you give young students who might be interested in aeronautics?

NAM: I would tell those students to stay focused in school so you can find what you love. If you love math, science or art, focus on that and go after it. Allow yourself to dream and have huge aspirations. Then you can study hard. Never cut yourself short or feel like there is something that you can’t do. If you don’t try then you’ll never know whether you could have made it or not, and you’re just putting yourself out of an opportunity. Grab those opportunities, and don’t be afraid to stumble along the way. You need to adapt and overcome, and that is part of living. 

This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Contact Kavi Mookherjee Amodt at kavimookherjeeamodt ‘at’ gmail.com.