Astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann, whose paternal grandfather was Estonian, will be the NASA mission commander aboard SpaceX Dragon that will launch to space this autumn; Mann will become the first astronaut with Estonian ancestry to travel to space.
In 2018, NASA, the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, selected nine US astronauts who will fly on an American-made, commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station – with Nicole Aunapu Mann being one of the selected.
Since 2011, when the US retired its aging space shuttles, the country’s astronauts were transported to the International Space Station onboard the Russian Soyuz rockets. In the meantime, two US companies – Boeing and Elon Musk-founded SpaceX – developed new spacecraft, both of which will participate in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
In 2020, SpaceX successfully launched two NASA astronauts (Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken) into orbit on a Crew Dragon spacecraft, making SpaceX the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station and marking the first crewed orbital launch from American soil in nine years. Boeing’s Starliner is expected to make its first flight in 2023.
Nicole Aunapu Mann trained to fly both spacecraft; her first flight to the International Space Station onboard SpaceX Crew Dragon is scheduled for the liftoff on 29 September. She will be joined on the mission by NASA astronaut Josh Cassada, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata and Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina.
Combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan
Mann, a lieutenant colonel in the US Marine Corps, graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1999 before earning a degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University in 2001. She then served two combat tours, flying 47 combat missions in F/A-18s (a US combat jet) as a fighter pilot over Iraq and Afghanistan. She has over 2,500 flight hours in 25 types of aircraft and 200 carrier landings.
In 2013, she was one of the eight candidates selected from more than 6,300 applicants to train as an astronaut for NASA, and the agency later announced Mann could be one of the first astronauts sent on a mission to Mars.
Of the mixed heritage, Mann is also the first Native American woman to travel to space – she’s enrolled in Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in northern California.
Mann’s grandfather emigrated from Estonia
Nicole Aunapu Mann’s grandfather, Helmuth Aunapu, emigrated from Estonia as a young man in the 1920s and eventually settled to the US. He enlisted in the US Army and served as a military engineer in the Second World War, earning the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Unfortunately, Nicole Mann never met her grandfather, as Helmuth Aunapu died when Nicole’s dad, Howard, was just 11 years old. “Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet him, and I don’t have much direct knowledge of our family’s Estonian history,” Nicole Mann told the Estonian newspaper, Postimees, in 2020.
Mann said she hasn’t been to Estonia yet but may take a trip to the country of her grandfather after she returns from space. “I know we have relatives in Estonia. My older sister is just as excited about our Estonian roots. Hopefully we can make this trip together,” she said in an interview with Postimees.
The International Space Station is a modular space station. It is a multinational collaborative project between NASA (US), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe) and CSA (Canada). The station serves as a space environment research laboratory, but it is also suited for testing possible future long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars.
The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, following the Soviet and later Russian stations and the US Skylab station. It is the largest artificial object in space and the largest satellite in low Earth orbit, regularly visible to the naked eye from Earth’s surface.
Nicole Aunapu Mann is the first astronaut and the second person with Estonian ancestry to travel to space. In 2021, Russian actress Yulia Peresild, whose Estonian great grandparents were deported to Russia, was flown to the International Space Station to shoot scenes for an upcoming Russian film.