There are certain moments in life that one never forgets. For Sonoma County native Nicole Aunapu Mann, 35, those moments include marrying her husband, Travis, giving birth to her son, Jack, and now, being chosen to join the NASA astronaut corps.
“It was pretty much the most exciting day of my life,” said Mann, who learned in June about her selection as one of NASA’s eight new astronauts and began training at Houston’s Johnson Space Center this week.
The life-altering moment came via a cellphone call she nearly missed.
Mann was working at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. She had heard NASA would inform its finalists whether they had made the agency’s newest astronaut class, the first in four years. Mann said she wasn’t entirely surprised when a number belonging to the Johnson Space Center showed up on her caller ID.
However, instead of picking up the call, she “walked calmly” toward an exit.
“I was in the office building, and I have horrible reception in there,” Mann said. “I had to go down a couple of hallways to a window. By the time I got to the door, though, my phone rung three times, and I started getting worried that I was going to miss the call. At that point, I just took off running.”
She made it to the window just in time. On the other end was Janet Kavandi, NASA’s director of flight crew operations, who asked two questions: Was Mann still interested in being an astronaut? And would she like to move to Houston to be an astronaut candidate?
Mann, a major in the Marine Corps, answered yes to both, and NASA officially announced her selection a week later. She will potentially be the first female fighter pilot to become an astronaut in nearly two decades.
She has come a long way from the soccer fields in Sonoma County, where she first felt the drive to compete.
Mann, who hails from Penngrove, said she attributes much of her success to playing soccer during her years at Rancho Cotate High School, and later at the Naval Academy, where she was recruited for the school’s team.
“A lot of what I learned playing soccer early on carried through to what I learned at academy, and I kind of applied that to the rest of life,” Mann said.
In particular, Mann cited her soccer coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, Carin Jennings-Gabarra. She referred to Jennings-Gabarra as one of her “idols growing up,” calling her the Mia Hamm of the sport before women’s soccer had a streak of popularity in the late 1990s.
“When she talked about soccer, she always said it was 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental,” Mann said. “Ten percent is your natural athletic ability — you are just born with it. But the rest of it you control, whether it’s preparation in practice, or your fitness level, or just the amount of effort that you put into everything.”
Mann said that philosophy has continued to shape her life, whether it was graduating from Stanford University with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, flying in combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan, or completing Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River.
Being an astronaut poses new challenges, Mann said.
Her husband, Travis, is in the Navy, deployed to the Middle East until fall 2014. That means it’s just going to be Mann and her son, Jack, who is 17 months old, for the first year in Houston.
“I think that’s going to be challenge, but I think like any working mom, you are trying to balance work and family life, and that’s at times a juggling act,” Mann said. “Fortunately, though, my family’s awesome and very supportive. I’ll definitely lean on family to help out, as well as the other families of the other astronaut candidates.”
Mann already has met with some of her fellow astronaut recruits at a barbecue in Washington, D.C., before packing up her house in Maryland.
Becoming an astronaut is no easy feat. The application process includes a lengthy list of prerequisites, takes 18 months to complete and consistently has a success rate for applicants of under 1 percent.
NASA received more than 6,100 applications for Mann’s astronaut class. The agency invited 120 of those applicants to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for initial interviews in October, and then 50 back for a final round of interviews in February.
In the end, NASA selected roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of the applicants to become astronaut candidates.
Those selected still must complete two years of training before receiving the title of astronaut and becoming eligible to be assigned to a mission.
“The first time I may be in space could be five to 10 years from now, so it’s still a pretty long process,” Mann said. “(But) I’m excited about just going down to NASA and being part of that team, with its mission of space exploration and fostering innovation and developing new things and expanding our capabilities.
“I’m not sure what my role will be in any of that,” she added, “but I’m looking forward to finding out.”
Call The Bee’s Kurt Chirbas, (916) 321-1030.