This Native American Woman Went to Space and Made History
By Nicole Casperson
Only around 1 in 5 space industry workers are women.
For many years, the number of women in the aerospace industry has remained around 20%. However, so far, only 11% of astronauts have been women. And women CEOs represent 19% of the leaders in aerospace.
Although over 560 people have traveled to space, less than 70 are women.
And of the 225 spacewalks that have been taken, only 15 were by women.
Meanwhile, recent studies show that women are still noticeably underrepresented as researchers in STEM fields worldwide, averaging just 28.8%.
Space exploration tends to offer high-earning jobs in a fast-growing sector, providing women with more financial freedom and empowerment.
So while America celebrates Thanksgiving this week, Friday marks Native American Heritage Day.
In advance of it, I’d like to highlight the story of one woman who chased her dreams so hard that they took her out of this world, literally.
Meet Nicole Mann, the first Native American woman to go to space.
On October 5th of, 2022, Nicole Mann made history.
As the commander of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission, she launched to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft as the first Native American woman to travel out of this world.
But it wasn’t always Nicole’s childhood dream to put on a space suit.
She had a love and knack for math and sciences as a kid. However, she never considered that a career as a NASA astronaut was in the realm of possibility for her.
Nicole grew up in Northern California with her family and is registered with the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes.
She went to the Naval Academy after high school, majoring in mechanical engineering and earning a bachelor’s degree.
Upon completing her bachelor’s degree, her options were:
- Join the Navy
- Join the Marine Corps
Becoming the first intergalactic traveler from her community was yet to be on the table.
She joined as a colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps, which led her to graduate school, where she earned a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University.
As you can imagine, there weren’t many other students that shared her experience cheering her on.
The lack of representation didn’t stop Nicole from continuing to succeed.
After graduate school, Nicole was still eager to continue her education, but this time at flight school. In 2003, she earned her wings of gold as a Naval Aviator.
Nicole continued her journey with the military with a taste for the skies and an enthusiasm for being part of something bigger than herself.
She began her operational flying career one year later and was deployed on two combat missions to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ever a student of life, Nicole still wanted more after these missions.
As she surveyed her other options for where to take her career, she landed on test-pilot school, where she flew F/A-18 jets for the first time.
And one taste of the Blue Angels ride was all she needed.
Flying F/A-18 jet planes got Nicole’s wheels turning about what else could be possible for her.
She began exploring and came across NASA.
She learned that her academic credentials were similar to NASA’s current astronauts.
After her pivot in 2013, NASA chose Nicole to be an astronaut.
Nine years later, she launched from the Kennedy Space Station to conduct 250+ experiments in space with her crew.
Like 3D printing human tissue to eventually grow organs among the stars.
Nicole believes it’s important to celebrate these firsts.
She hopes her experience will help other women and native women see that they can realize their wildest dreams and chase opportunities they may have once perceived as impossible when they bet on themselves.
By keeping every door open and taking every extra AP & extracurricular class she could, she allowed herself to decide at each juncture of her life what she wanted to do.
In her words, “Never discount yourself. Because if you don’t try, you’ll never make it.“
This Thanksgiving, I hope we all take more than a moment to celebrate stories like Nicole’s.
She wears the challenges that came alongside her success with grace.
But our country is still learning to empower native women like Nicole, and that mission must stay front and center.