Thanks to Velcro technology, Nicole Mann was always easy to find in space.
The SpaceX Crew-5 commander had a “hair situation” on the orbiting complex, she announced today (March 15) during a livestream press conference. Her crewmates were able to track Mann via long strands of hair that accidentally got stuck to the Velcro on the International Space Station, where she was working on science in the orbital lab.
“It really helped me and Koichi [Wakata] Keep track of where Nicole was so we could actually just follow her path,” joked crewmate and NASA astronaut Josh Cassada, who was sitting next to her. As Mann laughed, Japan’s Wakata joked, “Then she whimpered at the end of that path.”
Mann was not raised expecting to be in space, let alone deal with such inconveniences of microgravity, she told Space.com. The US Navy aviator was the first Native American woman to leave Earth; Mann is a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Native American tribes of Northern California.
But after Mann’s decades of hard work (and a bit of luck) got her to the ISS, she spent hours in space speaking to students (including Native American students) around the world about her journey from test pilot to space commander.
Related: Auroras, Starship Mods, and More: SpaceX Crew 5 astronauts reflect on their time in orbit
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“I think it’s really important for us astronauts to share our journey,” Mann told Space.com. “We all have unique ways in which we became astronauts. We all have unique dreams and aspirations. But we all have one thing in common: we are very passionate about our jobs before we became astronauts.”
Mann emphasized that overall crew diversity is important, pointing to examples of her Crew 5 crewmates, who were from Russia (Anna Kikina) and Japan (Wakata), or herself from California.
“Whatever your background, whatever your race, your religion, or whatever you may be, [children] can share in that joy,” said Mann. “Maybe you see something in that astronaut that tells his story, something you connect with, and maybe that’s the only thing that motivates a kid to reach for those dreams.”
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Women’s History Month runs for the month of March. The splashdown of Crew-5 days ago on March 11 ended the longest streak of consecutive women’s missions in space, according to NASA statistics (opens in new tab). The farewell of man and Kikina from orbit ended about two years and five months, during which at least the woman flew high.
“The diversity that we have in the US Astronaut Corps and in our International Astronaut and Cosmonaut Corps is truly incredible. It is a great reflection of the diversity we have on planet earth. And that’s so important to recognize,” Mann said.
Related: International Women’s Day: Female astronauts keep leaving Earth
Mann acknowledged that science and space are making great strides as female astronauts (as an example of diversity dimensions) are not reported as individually as they were in the 1980s or 1990s. (NASA says a total of 73 women have made it into space, and the number increases when you consider shorter orbital missions.) That said, Mann added, “We’re not quite there yet, are we?”
“There are still areas of the world, areas of the United States, where we have barriers — and we’re working to break them,” Mann continued. “But it’s great to also celebrate the progress we’ve made when it’s the able and certified who are chosen for a mission and carry out that mission.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Kikina added it was important to have both men and women in space exploration, especially to prepare for tougher missions to the moon or other planets in the coming decades. “Partnerships are at their best when both female and male teams are represented. They are more effective, more successful and more productive,” said Kikina.
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Crew-5 proved to be a fairly definitive mission after launching on October 5, 2022 with Mann in command, alongside Kikina (the first Russian to pilot a SpaceX spacecraft), Wakata (who made a record fifth flight for a single Japanese astronauts graduated). ) and Casada.
A coolant leak aboard a Soyuz crew capsule named MS-22 occurred on December 14, 2022, forcing some crew members to relocate. Cassada installed the first jump seat on SpaceX’s Endeavor spacecraft to temporarily replace the ride home for Frank Rubio of NASA. (Rubio’s crewmates aboard Soyuz were deemed safe to board MS-22 if necessary.)
Accelerated timing of a new Soyuz launch to replace the broken one was pushed back after a Progress cargo ship had its own coolant leak, necessitating an investigation; First, Soyuz was delayed to March and then rotated for a quick launch on February 23, days after Russia deemed it safe to fly. The new vehicle, MS-23, docked on Feb 25 without incident. Russia continues to investigate the cause of these leaks to rule out a Soyuz and Progress manufacturing issue.
When the next woman launches into space is hard to say as schedules keep changing. Axiom Space’s Ax-2 could launch on a commercial mission to the ISS in May; These include veteran retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson as commander and the first-ever Saudi female astronaut, Rayyanah Barnawi.
The Soyuz MS-24 flight date is highly uncertain, but whether it’s June or September or some other time, the crew includes NASA’s Loral O’Hara. SpaceX’s Crew-7 includes another Navy aviator, Jasmin Moghbeli, due for launch in August 2023.
Also on the launch list is the billionaire-funded Polaris Dawn mission, which could launch in the second half of 2023 with two women on board, both from SpaceX: Anna Menon and Sarah Gillis. It’s also possible that a suborbital excursion or a Chinese mission with women on board could fly this year, but nothing is confirmed yet.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “why am i taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; starring Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).