A NASA astronaut will make soon make a giant leap for diversity.
Nicole Mann will become the first Native American woman to fly in space when SpaceX's Crew-5 mission for NASA launches from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That liftoff is currently scheduled for Oct. 4, though Hurricane Ian could end up pushing it back a bit.
"I feel very proud," Mann told Reuters in August. "It's important that we celebrate our diversity and really communicate that specifically to the younger generation."
Mann, a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in northern California, said that her community is eager for the chance for orbital representation on board Crew-5's destination, the International Space Station.
"That's really, I think, an audience that we don't get an opportunity to reach out to very often," said Mann, who is slated to spend half a year in space on the orbital complex. Mann will bring a dreamcatcher into orbit, which is a sort of protective charm in some Native American cultures, according to the Smithsonian Institution — although the specific meanings and associated stories vary from group to group.
Mann's time in orbit will coincide with November's Native American Heritage Month, which celebrates the "rich histories, diverse cultures and important contributions of our nation’s first people," according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
NASA has been highlighting Native American contributions to the agency in recent years, too. One example is the "hidden figure" Mary G. Ross, a member of the Cherokee Nation who contributed to Mars and Venus missions as a mathematician and engineer. The first Native American to leave Earth was John Bennet Herrington, a NASA astronaut and member of the Chickasaw Nation who reached orbit in 2002.
American Indians and Alaska Native populations represent roughly 3.7 million people, or 1.1% of the overall United States population, according to the United States Census Bureau's 2020 numbers. Such figures can be quite fuzzy, however, given that many people are a combination of multiple ethnicities. ("Native Hawaiian" and "Other Pacific Islander" are counted separately in the census, too.)
Mann has emphasized that diversity in space is a good thing, as it brings more perspectives to space exploration. "We are coming together as a human race," Mann told ABC News in August, "and our mission on board the International Space Station of developing this technology and research to benefit all of humankind is really what brings us together."
The other three members of the Crew-5 mission are Anna Kikina, the first-ever Russian cosmonaut to fly with SpaceX, and NASA's Josh Cassada and Japan's Koichi Wakata.