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September 22, 2020
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Astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann talks to students

  • Students from University Elementary School had the unique opportunity to chat with an Astronaut Nicole A. Mann from NASA Tues, Feb. 4. Mann, a 1995 graduate from Rancho Cotate High School answered questions from students and then posed for a photo with the students in attendance. Photo by Jane Peleti

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
February 7, 2020

How do you hear stuff in space? How do astronauts breathe in outer space? Do astronauts do parkour? These are some of the burning questions TK through first grade students wanted to know, during a rare opportunity to actually talk to a real astronaut on Feb. 4 at University Elementary school.

“For the past three years I’ve been trying to get an astronaut here and have been denied every year,” said Ryan Kurada, a TK and Kindergarten Teacher at University Elementary. “It’s really difficult to get one. The NASA Houston space center said to me that the astronaut picked up on this request because she’s from this area. They usually book appearances based on some type of personal connection.”

About 90 excited children crowded around the screen in the school’s multipurpose room to eagerly await the virtual appearance of astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann from NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Mann grew up in Rohnert Park, attended Rancho Cotate High School and went on to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy at Stanford University. She explained to the children her path of becoming an astronaut – first and foremost studying hard in school and keeping up her physical fitness to be able to withstand the physical demands in space. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering, and then became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps and served as a test pilot in the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet. She deployed twice aboard aircraft carriers in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mann was selected by NASA in 2013 and is currently training for the crew flight test of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, the first crewed flight for that vehicle. She explained to the children how she will be taking her first flight to space this year, going to the International Space Station and living there for six months. 

“Everyone says the most incredible thing about the first time you ever go to space is the moment when you’re finally in orbit and look back at our beautiful planet Earth,” said Mann. “Everyone I’ve talked to said it’s the most incredible thing to see the entire world that looks very fragile actually against the blackness of space. It reminds you of how important it is to take care of our planet and how special planet Earth is.”

The kids were captivated with Mann’s description of the ISS.

“The international space station is this huge floating laboratory,” explained Mann. “It travels 17,500 miles per hour and orbits the earth every 90 minutes. So, if you’re an astronaut on board you get to see a sunrise and a sunset every 45 minutes!”

Mann explained how her expedition is part of NASA’s bigger goal of sending astronauts to Mars. NASA’s Orion program will send astronauts to the moon in this decade and will work on the technology and resources needed to go all the way to Mars. Looking at the children in the room, she explained to them that those astronauts that will potentially travel to Mars in a couple decades are likely their age now. 

“If there‘s anybody sitting in the classroom today, that thinks somebody it might be cool to be an astronaut, and it might be cool to go to the moon, or Mars, you are living in the perfect timeframe because we will need astronauts to go to Mars,” said Mann. “It will be when you’re grown up and ready to go.”

Mann is one of many different STEAM focused professionals the school is scheduled to present to this project-based learning school.

“What we’re doing this year in our TK and K classrooms is a STEAM job fair project,” says Kurada. “Our kids have been really interested in STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics – based on events we’ve had at our school. They want to know what STEAM looks like in our community. So, we’ve been inviting people who do different jobs in our community – scientists, architects, engineers, artists, etc. and learning about what they do and how they help us.”

Perhaps one of the children that were inspired about space travel this week will be coming back in twenty years to talk to the next generation of children about their upcoming flight to Mars.