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Nicole Mann will be the 1st Native woman in space

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

She is officially mission commander on the SpaceX Dragon, she will be Expedition 68 flight engineer on the International Space Station, and she may even go to the moon. All of which means she will be going where no Native woman has gone before - to space. Nicole Mann is a Marine Corps pilot. She has a master's in engineering from Stanford and is now a NASA astronaut. She is a member of the Wailaki of the Round Valley Indian tribes and joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

NICOLE MANN: Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here with you.

SHAPIRO: Well, if all goes well, by the end of next month, you will be on the International Space Station or at least headed there. What can you tell us about the mission?

MANN: Oh, I am so excited. We have been training a long time for this mission. It's called Crew-5, and it will launch from Kennedy Space Center. Myself, along with Josh Cassada, Koichi Wakata and Anna Kikina - and we will travel to the International Space Station for a six-month mission, and then, at the completion of that mission, we will return home on Dragon off the coast of Florida.

SHAPIRO: There's a lot that you can do in six months. What are you most excited about?

MANN: Oh - so excited. Everything - there's so many things to choose from. Of course, we're going to be doing some amazing science on board. They're planning about 250 experiments for us. There'll be a lot of work on the space station. We are doing some upgrades of the solar arrays, so hopefully we get a chance to do a couple spacewalks while we're up there.

SHAPIRO: I read about something called the biofabrication lab. What is that exactly?

MANN: The biofabrication lab is personally one of my favorites, and I'm very excited to work with that. Essentially, it's 3D printing human tissue. We could grow cells here on Earth, but because of the effects of gravity in space, we can grow them three dimensionally. We have already produced a partial meniscus of a knee, and we're looking at growing heart cells. And eventually the concept is that we could grow organs. They're really hoping to have trials in animals by the end of the decade.

SHAPIRO: Well, you are also, of course, making history. You're going to be the first Native woman in space. What does that mean to you?

MANN: It's very exciting. You know, it's so fun, I think, in our lifetime when you have firsts. And I think it's really great to celebrate those and to communicate that, especially to the younger generation, right? These young women, maybe Natives, maybe people from different backgrounds that realize that they have these opportunities and potentially these barriers that used to be there are starting to be broken down. And so hopefully that will inspire that younger generation. And the cool thing is, though, operationally, it doesn't really matter, which is pretty cool, right? We're finally getting to that point in our history.

SHAPIRO: Operationally, it doesn't matter. Personally, I know that you're able to bring a few items from home. When astronaut John Herrington became the first Native man in space, he brought the Chickasaw Nation flag. Is there anything special to you that you're planning on bringing with you?

MANN: I do have some personal mementos, you know, jewelry charms that I plan to bring. And then I do have this dream catcher that my mother gave me long ago. And that's always just, you know, a little bit - a piece memory, I think, of my family back home. And that's something that I'll keep with me in my crew quarters while I'm on board space station.

SHAPIRO: When did you know you wanted to be an astronaut?

MANN: For me, honestly, it wasn't until a little bit later in life. I didn't have it all figured out when I was a kid. You know, I was interested in math and science, but I had never met an astronaut. I didn't really know what they did, and I didn't think that was in the realm of possibility. And so it wasn't until I was flying F-18s in the Marine Corps that I started looking at future opportunities and where I wanted my career to go, and NASA became something at that point that was viable and became my dream.

SHAPIRO: Is there something you would like to say to maybe a young person now, who doesn't believe it's a possibility, whether that is a Native young woman or anybody who might have those dreams but not think they're realistic?

MANN: Absolutely. The first thing that I would say is never discount yourself. If you don't go after a dream or a goal and if you don't try, you're never going to make it. You know, pursue that topic in school, ask for help, meet people that have done that job to learn more about it. You'll grow so much as a child into an adult, and your interests will vary quite a bit. And so it's exciting to take this opportunity to just chase down all of those dreams and never discount yourself.

SHAPIRO: Before we say goodbye, one more opportunity that might come your way is you're a part of Artemis, which is NASA's attempt to return humans to the moon. If you set foot on the moon, what would that mean to you?

MANN: It is an incredible step for all of humankind - this time going to the moon to stay. And it's really the building blocks for our exploration to Mars. So it's just a huge step in, I think, our evolution as humans.

SHAPIRO: That's the big picture significance. What about the personal significance if you get to stand on the moon?

MANN: I mean, Ari, that would be awesome. Who wouldn't want to...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MANN: ...Stand on the moon, right (laughter)?

SHAPIRO: That's NASA astronaut Nicole Mann, soon to be the first Native woman in space. Thank you, congratulations and good luck.

MANN: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Taylor Hutchison