Nicole Mann was busy growing dwarf tomatoes aboard the International Space Station (ISS) this morning just before I reached her by phone, in a call patched from New York through Mission Control in Houston, Texas, and up to the station, orbiting 400 km (250 mi.) above the Earth. Dwarf tomatoes are no minor thing for a station program preparing human beings for long-term stays on the moon and later Mars, where they will have to learn to live off the land—which includes growing their own food.
“I was testing out the different light sources and different fertilizers to see how that affects the growth of the tomatoes,” Mann told me. “In order to test them, we will get to taste the tomatoes when they are grown too.”
Horticulture is only one part of the some 200 experiments Mann, 45, will be conducting during her 6-month stay aboard the station—a stay that began with her launch with three other crewmembers aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft in October. It was the sixth time a Dragon has carried astronauts to the ISS—but with Mann on board, the flight stood apart. Not only was she the first woman to command a Crew Dragon, she also became the first Native American woman in space—a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Covelo, Calif.
“To be honest,” she says, “it makes me feel very proud. I think of the generations that came before me and the obstacles and challenges that people had to overcome. They helped pave the way for my path and opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”
Mann’s route to NASA and space was a long and glittery one. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and then Stanford University, where she earned a Master of Science in mechanical engineering, she is also an active duty Marine Colonel, who flew 47 combat missions in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She later worked as a test pilot for the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet—the Navy’s newest and most advanced carrier-based strike aircraft—and has logged more than 2,500 hours in 25 different types of aircraft. That exhaustive training in aircraft helped prepare her for the even trickier business of flying spacecraft, especially the Dragon.
“Flying Hornets teaches you compartmentalization, and that is huge,” she says. “When you’re flying spacecraft it’s huge too. Sometimes you’re doing things that are time critical, that have dire consequences if things don’t go properly. So you really need to be able to focus on precisely what you’re doing and execute your goal.”
Aboard the station, things are less urgent since, while the ISS requires regular upkeep and maintenance and occasional reboosts of its orbit, it essentially flies itself in an ever-continuing path around the globe. That gives the crewmembers plenty of time for the work they have to do—and at least a little time for sightseeing and reflection. There are seven people currently aboard the station including Mann: three American astronauts; one astronaut from JAXA, the Japanese space agency; and three Russian cosmonauts. All is peaceable and collegial among the seven, but they are not blind to the fact that 400 km below, the U.S. and Russia are at geopolitical dagger points over the war in Ukraine. From space, however, none of that is visible, and it makes for a certain transcendence that astronauts have come to dub “the overview effect.”
“You look out the windows and take a quick glance,” Mann says, “and at first it looks just like what you’ve seen in pictures and movies. But if you pause and live in the moment a bit, you can take the time to appreciate the planet moving by at remarkable speed. You see weather changing; you can see what I used to think of as distant lands pass under you in a matter of minutes.”
“It really gives you a perspective of how small and fragile our planet is and just how united we are on this one little globe,” she continues. “I hope that that perspective can be shared with more people throughout the world and maybe that’s something that will help unite us as a human race.”
The Earth isn’t the only globe that’s on Mann’s mind as she serves out her station tour. Even as the ISS crew tend to their daily responsibilities, Artemis 1, the uncrewed Orion capsule that will one day return humans to the moon, is midway through its mission in lunar orbit, beaming back images of the close-up moon and the distant Earth 400,000 km (250,000 mi.) away. Those pictures are being shared not just with the 7.8 billion people on the planet, but the seven aboard the station, and that has Mann thinking about the future.
Asked if she sees herself as a possible future member of the Artemis team, she responds with a straightforward, “Absolutely,” adding, “I think everybody at NASA is excited to be a part of the Artemis program. Here on the station, we upload the photographs and it’s really exciting, it really invigorates. And this is just the beginning. The moon is a stepping stone for our exploration of Mars.”
But the moon and Mars are for later. For now, Mann has more than four months ahead in her current cosmic assignment—and she is mindful that every day she spends aloft carries a symbolic responsibility with it. Among the personal effects she brought with her on the mission is a traditional Native American dream catcher her mother gave her when she was a child—a reminder of her path-setting cultural status. She is also aware that even now, more than 60 years after humans began flying in space, women represent just 12% of all of the astronauts and cosmonauts who have ever left the planet. Her goal, as a woman and an Indigenous American, is to help others like her follow her.
“I hope that young women can connect with me and my journey,” she says, “and maybe see a little bit of themselves in me. Maybe that will give them the inspiration and the courage that they need to follow their dreams.”