From Annapolis to Outer Space: Former Navy Women’s Soccer Player Nicole Aunapu Mann Now an Astronaut

by Braxton Taylor

Nicole Aunapu Mann is unquestionably among the greatest players in Navy women’s soccer history. Now, her out-of-this-world performances carry new meaning.

In 2013, Aunapu Mann was selected as one of eight members of NASA Astronaut Group 21, achieving a dream set shortly after earning her wings of gold a decade before.

The California native is one of only two four-time, first-team All-Patriot League selections ever produced by the program.

Playing under her maiden name, Nicole Aunapu, also excelled in the classroom, being named a first team Academic All-American by the College Sports Information Directors of America in 1997 and 1998. She was twice selected as Patriot League Women’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

That drive and determination that made Aunapu Mann such a successful soccer player and midshipman at the Naval Academy has led to a distinguished post-graduate career. She received Marine Corps aviation as a service selection and wound up flying the F/A-18 Hornet.

Aunapu Mann logged more than 2,500 flight hours in 25 types of aircraft and 200 carrier landings, while flying 47 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. She received two Air Medals, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals in recognition of exemplary service.

She graduated as a member of Class 135 from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in July 2008. Col. Aunapu Mann made history in October 2022 when she served as commander of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Endurance. She led an international crew of four astronauts that spent nearly six months at the International Space Station.

Aunapu Mann, who is registered with the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, became the first Indigenous woman to launch into orbit. She conducted two spacewalks totaling 14 hours, 2 minutes.

Aunapu Mann’s journey began with a choice to play college soccer at the Naval Academy, inspired to cross the country by coach Carin Gabarra, a former All-American at the University of California, Santa Barbara and United States women’s national team member.

“I was always interested in serving in the military because I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself and serve my country. I also really enjoyed math and science, so those two elements are why I wound up focusing on the service academies,” Aunapu Mann said. “The final piece was Carin Gabarra, who was my idol as a kid. I watched Carin play soccer while growing up and had a poster of her on the wall of my bedroom. When I found out she was the head coach at the Naval Academy, it all came together.”

Aunapu Mann became an immediate starter at marking back as a 5-foot-5 plebe. In those days, Navy employed a one-versus-one defensive scheme with a sweeper as a safety valve and Aunapu Mann’s job was to shut down the opponent’s most dangerous scorer.

“Nicole just had the mentality piece. Your job is to mark one person and the challenge is to see who is going to win that duel,” Gabarra said. “Nicole’s competitiveness and toughness were exceptional. She was a relentless defender who was also very good on the ball and could jump-start the attack after winning possession.”

Aunapu Mann was named Patriot League Defender of the Year as both a junior and senior. She was a four-time United Soccer Coaches All-East Region selection, earning second team honors as a senior captain.

Looking back, Aunapu Mann realizes how her time with Navy women’s soccer helped prepare her to become an officer.

“Being a member of the soccer team, you learn so much about peer leadership and working together to overcome challenges,” she said. “You win and lose together. As a young woman, I realized the Marine Corps was my next team.”

From fighter jets to spacecraft

During summer training before her senior year, Aunapu Mann was introduced to aviation and the world of fighter jets, which was a transformational experience.

“I didn’t have it all figured out when I went to Annapolis. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in the military,” she said. “Fairly early on I knew I wanted to be a Marine. It wasn’t until the summer before my firstie year that I got a ride in the back seat of an F-18. I remember thinking, ‘You’re telling me I can be a pilot and a Marine? Sign me up and let’s do this.'”

After graduating the academy with a degree in mechanical engineering, Aunapu Mann attended graduate school at Stanford and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering with a specialization in fluid mechanics.

While stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in North Carolina, Aunapu Mann deployed twice aboard the USS Enterprise in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Shortly thereafter, Aunapu Mann realized she missed the engineering element of military service, which led her to apply to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School. “It was a way to be a fighter pilot and an engineer — sort of put those two things together,” she said.

While attending the school at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Aunapu Mann had the light bulb moment that has proved life changing.

“I came across online the biographies of a couple Marine astronauts. I was reading their bios and was like ‘Ah, they flew F-18s and I fly F-18s. They went to test pilot school and I’m going to test pilot school.’ It became apparent this was something I could do in the future,” she said.

Aunapu Mann completed her NASA training in 2015 and served as a T-38 Talon safety and training officer as well as assistant to the Chief of Exploration. She worked on the development of the Orion spacecraft along with space launch and exploration ground systems.

Being named commander of the SpaceX Crew-5 mission was both an amazing honor and massive responsibility. In that role, Aunapu Mann led an international team that included another Navy pilot, a Japanese astronaut and Russian cosmonaut.

Endurance launched on Oct. 5, 2022, and flew to the International Space Station as part of Expedition 68 with Crew-5 contributing to hundreds of experiments and technology demonstrations.

“It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever done. You spend so much time training for your mission onboard the space station, so when you get up there you are so excited to put all that training to work,” said Aunapu Mann, noting the work involved everything from maintenance such as upgrading the CO2 scrubbers to working with flying robots and training for spacewalks.

While at the Johnson Space Center in advance of the mission, Aunapu Mann prepared for her two spacewalks inside the NASA Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. That involved training for six hours at a time underwater in one of the world’s largest pools with weight and foam used to manipulate buoyancy to simulate full or partial gravity.

However, nothing could prepare Aunapu Mann for actually putting on a space suit and venturing outside the station through an airlock. Her assignment was to perform upgrades to the space station’s solar arrays.

“When you go out the door it’s amazing how similar a lot of the training is to doing an actual spacewalk,” she said, “except you don’t have that stability of the water. While you don’t weigh anything in space, you still have a lot of mass and a lot of momentum, so you have to learn how to control that and you have to use a lot of finesse in order to be effective.

“When you’re outside in the vacuum of space it’s just that visor between you and space. As you’re hanging on to the space station by a tether and looking down at planet earth, it’s absolutely incredible.”

Aunapu Mann is once again stationed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and is tasked with supporting spacewalks for the International Space Station, performing robotics work and helping with the development of new space suits.

Is a moon landing next?

Aunapu Mann is also playing an integral role in the development of the Artemis program, which is intended to reestablish a human presence on the moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 landing in 1972. The program’s stated long-term goal is to establish a permanent base on the moon to facilitate human missions to Mars.

“We’re going back to the moon through the Artemis program, so we’re testing new space suits and new spacecraft, developing landers and creating habitats for the moon. It’s a very exciting time,” said Aunapu Mann, who hopes to join the elite list of astronauts that have stepped on the moon.

Being an astronaut is glamorous, but it’s also dangerous. The Naval Academy has produced more astronauts than any college institution with Aunapu Mann becoming the 54th. Among them is Willie McCool, who was pilot of the space shuttle Columbia mission that disintegrated upon reentry into the atmosphere, killing the entire crew.

Aunapu Mann acknowledged that her chosen profession “is not without risks” and said astronauts “don’t take that lightly.” She said it’s important to remember all those who made the ultimate sacrifice and for NASA to learn from past mistakes.

“We have to hold those very tight no matter how painful it is because we don’t want to repeat those mistakes and lose another crew member. We do think about it and talk about it quite often,” Aunapu Mann said. “There’s a huge team at NASA that is trying to make space exploration as safe as possible, but at the end of the day you are strapped to a rocket and you are leaving the planet. It is dangerous and you have to explain that to your parents, your spouse and your children.”

Aunapu Mann recently received significant recognition as she was among six former student-athletes to receive the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award. It honors former student-athletes for their outstanding athletic and professional achievements in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the conclusion of their collegiate careers.

“It was definitely a tremendous honor and a real privilege to meet the other awardees, many of whom I have heard of and have done some incredible things,” Aunapu Mann said.

Aunapu Mann returned to Annapolis this past fall to spend three days at the academy and spoke to the Navy women’s soccer team at that time. Gabarra calls her famous former player “an incredibly down-to-earth and humble person who is extremely well-rounded.”

Former teammate Anne Kipp Klokaw exchanged emails with Aunapu Mann while the latter was living and working aboard the International Space Station. Aunapu Mann had to exercise while in orbit and wanted a goal to work toward, so she and Kipp Klokaw agreed do the Ragnar Trail Run in Zion National Park last spring.

Kipp Klokaw said every member of the Navy women’s soccer program from 1995-98 is “immensely proud” of what their former teammate has achieved. Aunapu Mann credits college athletics with helping her reach the rarified air of astronaut.

“There are so many similarities between the team I’m on now and the Navy women’s soccer team I was part of for four years. As a college athlete, I didn’t realize how powerful that was going to be,” she said.

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