Nicole Aunapu Mann used to be a star on the soccer fields of Sonoma County. Now, the Penngrove native is a candidate to land on an asteroid and possibly fly to Mars.
Mann, 35, was one of eight new astronaut trainees named by NASA on Monday to prepare for future space flights far beyond the moon.
"I thought it was a long shot," admitted Mann, speaking in a video posted Monday on NASA's website.
More than 6,300 people applied for one of the coveted slots. But Mann, who graduated from Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park in 1995, apparently had the right stuff.
Now a major in the Marine Corps, Mann graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University. She completed U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and served in Iraq.
Mann, an F/A 18 fighter jet pilot based at the U.S. Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, said she was looking forward to working amid "the energy and excitement" at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Howard Aunapu of Penngrove said his daughter texted him and his wife Victoria word of her selection about 5 a.m. Monday.
"We were thrilled," he said, but not surprised. "She has a phenomenal success rate. There have been a lot of firsts in her career."
The eight new astronaut candidates will help lead the first human mission to an asteroid in the 2020s, and then Mars, sometime in the following decade, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.
They also may be among the first to fly to the International Space Station aboard commercial spacecraft launched from the U.S., he noted. Russia ferries the astronauts now.
"These new space explorers asked to join NASA because they know we're doing big, bold things here — developing missions to go farther into space than ever before," Bolden said in a statement.
The candidates will report for duty in August at Johnson Space Center in Houston and join 49 astronauts currently at NASA.
The number of astronauts has dwindled ever since the space shuttles stopped flying in 2011. Many astronauts quit rather than get in a lengthy line for relatively few slots for long-term missions aboard the International Space Station.
Mann is one of four women selected for the class, the first time ever that women have made up half of a training group. Gender was not a consideration in the process, said Janet Kavandi, NASA's director of flight crew operations.
Kavandi, a former astronaut who made three space shuttle flights, said it was "a great tribute to women today" that they are successful in fields that qualify them to be astronauts.
Mann is the first female fighter pilot to become an astronaut in nearly two decades. A female helicopter pilot and two female scientists were also accepted into the class.
Monday's announcement came on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first American woman in space, Sally Ride. She died last summer.
The video included congratulations from two astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
"Trust us, it is so worth it," Navy Cmdr. Chris Cassidy said, referring to days spent "floating around" and sharing meals with his Russian crewmates.
"It's just a blast," he said.