A laser focus and a tremendous work ethic have propelled Nicole Mann to great heights — first on the soccer field at Navy, then as a fighter pilot flying F-18s and now as a NASA astronaut.
Growing up in Penngrove in northern California, Mann played youth, club and high school soccer while her older sister, Kirsten, focused on gymnastics.
“My parents provided a wonderful support net and drove me all over California for soccer tournaments,” Mann said. It was during those long drives, and at home, that Mann’s parents, Howard and Victoria Aunapu, listened and encouraged her. Her father, a retired automobile mechanic, and her mother, a former nail salon owner, instilled in her curiosity, effective decision-making and the art of learning, she said.
“I always wanted to learn as a kid and strive for the next level,” Mann said.
During her junior year at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park, California, she set upon a course to attend a military service academy and play collegiate-level soccer. Her dad served in the Army as a young man, but she would be the first in her extended family to pursue a military career.
Learning to lead
“As a high school player, Mann was solid in all areas,” said Carin Gabarra, Navy’s women’s soccer coach, who recruited her in 1995. “What was hard to miss when she competed was her mentality, and her work ethic was off the charts. She hated to lose more than she loved winning.”
Once at Navy, what also stood out was her pure leadership. Attributes such as selflessness and making everyone she encountered feel important quickly earned her the respect of her teammates.
“She was a leader when she got here, and she got better at it because she’s a good follower,” Gabarra said.
Two years before Mann arrived at the academy, the women’s soccer program transitioned out of club soccer to NCAA Division I competition. Mann’s recruiting class was key to building the program’s early successes in Division I, most notably with a win over rival Army West Point during her senior year — a first for the young Navy program, which had lost its previous five games against the Black Knight.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned as a Navy scholar-athlete was balance and compartmentalization. It’s challenging to juggle an academic workload, sports and personal life,” Mann said. “It teaches you to focus on whatever you are doing at the time and do it well. If you are in calculus class, you can’t be worried about the big game coming up and vice versa.”
At Navy, leadership is fundamental for all midshipmen. As Mann headed into her senior year, her hard work militarily, academically and athletically earned her the respect of teammates. They selected her as team captain.
Mann was named 1999 NCAA Woman of the Year finalist for the state of Maryland. She was a two-time Patriot League Women’s Soccer Scholar-Athlete of the Year, a two-time Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year and a two-time College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-American. She was named to the Patriot League All-Decade Team in 2000.
Taking a ride in an F-18 fighter jet during her academy years focused Mann’s attention on becoming an aviator. After earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, and having corrective eye surgery, Mann fell in love with both flying and her husband, Travis, while they were in fighter jet pilot school.
“Getting ready to play a game equals the same kind of feeling I get before I fly,” said Mann, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. “You’re strapped into a 40,000-pound jet headed for a mission over Iraq or Afghanistan, and it is game time. It’s time to perform. Then you take off, and you’re playing in the moment.”
Often, Mann and her husband, who’s in the Navy, were both deployed in active combat missions, serving in different locations throughout the world for great lengths of time. It wasn’t always easy.
It didn’t get easier when Mann decided to pursue astronaut candidacy at NASA.
“I was pregnant with our first child, and this decision was a big career move,” she said. She and her husband sat down to discuss their life plan, an exercise Mann had been doing since her days as a midshipman at the academy.
With the support of her family, Mann’s vision was realized in 2013 when NASA selected her as one of eight astronaut candidates — four men and four women — out of 6,300 applicants. Today, Mann is among 44 active astronauts eligible for flight assignment.
Mann’s work days are filled with training for spaceflight. She could be selected for a mission aboard Orion, the next spacecraft that will go beyond the Earth’s orbit; or for an International Space Station mission traveling on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft; or for a mission aboard one of the American spacecrafts that NASA’s commercial partners are currently developing. Looking ahead to the 2030s, a space mission to Mars is a possibility.
Until then, she’s learning to speak Russian and doing training missions such as underwater spacewalking in the neutral buoyancy lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, a physical feat rivaling having run a marathon, Mann said.
Her husband and 5-year-old Jackson get her full attention when she’s home. From the moment she walks in the door until her son goes to bed, she’s mom, not an astronaut. She’s learned to balance her home and work life just as she did at the academy, focusing on the task at hand.
As an astronaut, Mann’s intense focus is crucial. Losing concentration in space can put lives in jeopardy, she said.
“College athletics prepared me for life,” Mann said. “It teaches you mental toughness that I don’t think you can get anywhere else. I played soccer, and that was my team and a big focus of my life. Now, I play for a different team — NASA.”
Photos by Carin Gabarra and Nicole Mann.