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From Barbie dolls to the 'final frontier'

  • ** SPECIAL TO THE SANTA PRESS DEMOCRAT ** Marine Corps. Major Nicole Mann, 35, gives her 16 month-old son Jack a glass of water at their home in Lexington Park, Md., Friday, June 21, 2013. Mann was recently named as one of eight new astronaut trainees by NASA. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

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.

Major Nicole Mann

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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.


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