SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Outer space is the next step for Nicole Aunapu Mann, who grew up playing with Barbie dolls and soccer balls in Sonoma County, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and Stanford University and got a job in the Marine Corps flying jets at 1,300 miles per hour.
Mann, 35, who flew 147 combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming a test pilot four years ago, was named last week as one of eight astronaut candidates in NASA's 21st class of four men and four women with the right stuff.
“Definitely a dream come true,” Mann said from her home next to Naval Air Station Patuxent River on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, 65 miles southeast of Washington, D.C.
Mann's life since graduating from Rancho Cotate High School in 1995 has followed a dream-like script of successes since she surprised her family by opting for both a military career and a high-risk occupation.
“I liked the idea of being part of something that was bigger than me,” Mann said.
In two months, the Marine Corps major will change into an astronaut's blue jumpsuit and begin a rigorous two-year training regimen at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Beyond that lies the dark abyss of space, with likely visits to the Earth-orbiting International Space Station and possibly a rendezvous with an asteroid in the 2020s and, on NASA's farthest horizon, a trip to Mars.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, introducing the new astronaut class last week, said the agency was developing missions to “go farther into space than ever before,” pretty much echoing the fictional “Star Trek” mantra to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”
A scuba diver, skier and hiker, Mann, at 5 feet 5 inches tall and 130 pounds, thrives on challenges. She's comfortable pushing a twin-engine F/A 18 Hornet fighter jet through the sound barrier and up to Mach 1.7, which she said is actually a bit less dramatic than it sounds.
“You feel nothing; you can't even tell,” she said, other than by than watching a digital display of the jet's airspeed.
The sonic boom, caused by a compression wave from breaking the speed of sound, may resemble an explosion on the ground, but the jet compensates for the change in aerodynamics, Mann said.
It's still pretty cool when you look down and see 1.0 (on the display),” she said.
As a test pilot, Mann's job is to push an F/A 18 outfitted with new equipment or weapons as low and slow and as high and fast as it will go.
“You fly it at the edge of the envelope,” she said.
Mann said she jumped at the chance to apply for the astronaut program in January 2012 — even though it meant ignoring her mother's wishes.
It was the summer of 1998, after her junior year at the Naval Academy, that Mann flew in the back seat of an F/A 18 — having never been aloft in anything but a commercial airliner — and decided it was her idea of a sweet ride.
“It's an incredibly powerful machine,” she said. “Like being on a rollercoaster that you design as you go.”
Her mother, Vicki Aunapu of Penngrove, swallowed the news with a fateful comment. “OK, just don't be an astronaut,” she said.
While Mann was earning a master's degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford, she gave her mother an update, noting she was “right on track for an astronaut.”
And last week when she broke the news to her mother that she was following in the footsteps of John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, the old reservation was history.
“We laughed about it,” Mann said.
“I just couldn't stop screaming on the phone,” Aunapu said, overjoyed by the prospect of her daughter hurtling through space.
“We couldn't be more proud,” Aunapu said.
Mann also mentioned one of the reasons she opted for Marine aviation. “I really wanted to fly off an aircraft carrier,” she said without a trace of bravado in her voice.
A carrier landing — in which a 34,000-pound aircraft coming in at 175 mph must touch down and stop on an 800-foot runway that is 60 feet off the water — is among the most difficult maneuvers in military aviation, especially at night.
“Before you is a sea of darkness and a few tiny lights guiding your approach,” Mann said. “It is terrifying and thrilling at the same time.”
During combat tours in 2006 and 2007, Mann landed 147 times on the USS Enterprise in the Persian Gulf. She applied for test pilot school because it made use of both her engineering background and flight experience.
As an astronaut candidate — an “ascan” in NASA lingo — Mann is part of a pretty exclusive club. Including the first astronaut class selected in 1959, 50,758 people have applied for the position and only 338, fewer than 1 percent, have been accepted.
More than 6,300 people applied for this year's class, and eight made the grade.
Howard Aunapu said he wasn't surprised by his daughter's latest success. She went to Stanford on an academic scholarship, was among the first Marine combat pilots and was first in her class at test pilot school.
“She had what they were looking for, that's for sure,” he said.
In her youth, Mann played sports and rode bikes with the neighborhood kids in Rohnert Park. She and her older sister, Kirsten, had “every Barbie doll you could imagine” and also did their hair and put on makeup.
At school, Mann said she favored math and science over “English and poetry.”
The family moved from Rohnert Park to Penngrove when she was in elementary school.
She started playing youth soccer in Rohnert Park, was a prep star at Rancho Cotate and as captain of the Navy soccer team became one of the most decorated women's soccer players in Patriot League history.
Julie Wilson Klingaman, a friend of Mann's since their days with adjacent lockers at Rohnert Park Junior High, said she knew Mann was destined for achievement.
“She was always a go-getter,” Klingaman said. “I could tell she would make something of herself,” thinking of her friend as a future doctor, lawyer or scientist.
“I never would have guessed an astronaut,” she said.
Energetic, intelligent and well-liked, Mann got A's in school and “knew how to have fun, too,” Klingaman said, calling Mann “an all-American girl.”
But she also was humble, never bragging about success, Klingaman said.
Barbara Vrankovich, a retired Cotati-Rohnert Park School District principal and administrator, recalled Mann as an “outstanding student and tremendous athlete.”
“An all-around nice kid,” she said.
Modesty was always her daughter's style, Vicki Aunapu said, describing her approach as “I do what I do. That's me.”
Mann's latest distinction is joining three other women in the first astronaut class with an equal number of both genders. Overall, 52 of America's 338 astronauts, including the new class, are women.
Women were barred from the fledgling astronaut program by President Dwight Eisenhower's policy in 1958 that required them to qualify as military test pilots at a time when there were no women military pilots of any kind.
According to NASA's website, a “hardy group of American women pilots” passed the same medical tests as the original group of astronauts, known as the Mercury 7, selected in 1959.
In the mid-60s, the first scientist astronauts were selected, and in 1978, the eighth group — including pilots and mission specialists — included Sally Ride and five other women.
Ride, who died last year, was the first woman into space aboard the shuttle Challenger 30 years ago this week, and 42 other American women have followed her into space, including Ellen Ochoa from La Mesa, now director of the Johnson Space Center.
Eileen Collins, an Air Force test pilot selected in the same class as Ochoa in 1990, was the first female astronaut pilot and space shuttle commander.
Rusty Schweickart, a former astronaut who lives in Sonoma, said that women's presence is the major change in the space program since he joined NASA in the third astronaut class, selected in 1963.
The job is “largely the same” as it was 50 years ago, as are the people who apply for it, he said. “They're adventurous types, explorers.”
One difference, Schweickart said, is that the space station — where today's astronauts serve — is time-tested with nearly 83,000 Earth orbits. The Apollo astronauts of the 1960s “were going up in vehicles that hadn't flown before and doing things that hadn't been done before.”
But with the advances in education, Schweickart acknowledged that Mann and her contemporaries are “probably a bit smarter than we were; that wouldn't surprise me.”
Mann will carry an added complication heading into the astronaut training program that starts Aug. 12. She'll temporarily be a single mom.
Mann and her husband, Travis Mann, 40, a Navy lieutenant commander and also an F/A 18 pilot, met in flight school in 2002, eventually started dating and married in 2009. Their son, Jackson, is 16 months old.
Nicole Mann said they fly jets by day and then “come home and enjoy our evening and play with Jack.”
To make the transition from her tightly structured life in uniform to her role as a wife and mother, Mann said she falls back on her training.
“The military does a good job of teaching you to compartmentalize,” she said.
It's just like learning, as a school girl, to separate her time studying from her time playing with the neighborhood kids in the cul de sac at her Rohnert Park home, she said.
As Nicole Mann heads for Houston, Travis Mann is bound for a yearlong deployment to Bahrain. Nicole's parents will keep Jackson while she manages the move, then her mother will help her settle into an apartment in Houston.
Mann took four months off from flying after having her baby. Motherhood, she said, is a bigger thrill than breaking the sound barrier in a jet.
“It's the most amazing, incredible experience ever.”