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Astronaut Nicole Mann Shoots for the Moon

Astronaut Nicole Mann Shoots for the Moon

The Sonoma County native and member of the Round Valley Tribe reflects on sharing her dreams with her community

While preparing to go into space, astronaut Nicole Mann packed one treasure from home: the dream catcher her mom had given her when she was a little girl in Petaluma.

“I always had that dream catcher by my bed at home and there is a lot of symbolism,” says Mann, who was the commander of NASA’s six-month SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station in 2022—and also the first Native American woman to go into space.

“I remember my mom telling me, you have all these dreams come in through the dream catcher, and the bad ones get caught in the web and the good ones go through the feathers and into your head. That was a wonderful visualization for me as a child. Even to this day, I think it’s important—the ways that you deal with challenges and how you cope with life. Beyond that, it just reminded me of my family and my community.”

Feeling the Love

Mann has been thinking a lot about that community since the mission ended in March 2023 and she has been adjusting to life back on Earth. (“It is the ultimate jet lag,” she says, adding that it takes about 45 days for one’s body to reacclimate to a world with gravity.)

Through her mother, Mann is a descendant of the Wailaki Band of Indians, part of the Round Valley Tribe that has a reservation in Mendocino County. While Mann grew up in Sonoma County, about two hours from the reservation, she says the bonds of that tribal community infused her extended family in the Sonoma County cities of Petaluma and Rohnert Park, and the North Coast town of Willits.

“I grew up around amazing women,” she says. “They all chose their different paths in life, but they all share this idea that it takes a village, especially through difficult times. You’re going to struggle along the way, and it’s OK to rely on other people—those people.”

That support has helped her through a long list of rigorous challenges. Her path from Sonoma County to outer space included stops at the Naval Academy, Stanford University in Palo Alto, and the Marines, where she was a fighter pilot who was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, Mann is training for the international Artemis program and possible moon exploration.

To celebrate her post-SpaceX homecoming, the current Houston resident is heading back to Petaluma and Mendocino County soon for family reunions and the California Indian Days festival at the Round Valley reservation. “I am really looking forward to it,” she says. “The kids and my sister’s children, they have never been up into that area. I’ll also have an opportunity to go talk at schools in Rohnert Park and to speak to the children on the reservation.”

Embracing the Label

Being lauded as the first Native American women in space is a label that initially made Mann uneasy. “Growing up I felt that I needed to accomplish things on my own accord,” she says. “When I became an engineer, a Marine, and fighter pilot, I didn’t want to be seen as a ‘female’ fighter pilot, or a ‘Native’ engineer. Growing up I saw some biases, and I saw the challenges that came with that.”

Today, she says, “our society is getting better. A woman in space—that’s not something anyone thinks about anymore. There will be a day when a Native American woman in space will not be the first thing anyone thinks about either.”

But for now, she is seeing the strength in her achievement: “When I stopped looking at life with blinders, when I looked at the global community, I could see there are a lot of kids we need to reach out to,” Mann says. “So now, a big part of that space flight is sharing my experience. We’ve got so many young kids who are interested in space flight and science. It’s important for me to communicate my stories to these children, to tell them that those barriers are being broken down, there are many ways to achieve those dreams. Part of our responsibility is to empower them.”

It’s one thing, she adds, “to dream big and set those goals, but that next step is to have that drive to accomplish those goals. Let’s pull in our community and ask for help and continue to push forward.”

Petaluma’s Down-to-Earth Luxuries

Mann has been enjoying another kind of reunion since returning from the space station: eating produce. “In space, it’s all packaged or freeze-dried food,” she says, so once she landed back on Earth, “I wanted veggie chips, fresh fruits and vegetables, grapes, and any kind of berry I could get my hands on. Freeze-dried berries are just not the same.”

That’s another reason to get back to Sonoma County, she says. “Strawberries in California are the best,” she says. “I can’t wait to go to a strawberry patch.”