Nicole Aunapu Mann, Marine pilot, claims 1 of 8 NASA training slots

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 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, with 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 also were 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.

Mann is married to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Travis Mann, also an F/A-18 pilot based at Patuxent River. They have a 16-month-old son, Jackson, and are headed in dramatically different directions.

Nicole Mann is about to begin the two-year astronaut training program in Houston, while Travis Mann is deploying to Bahrain for a year.

Howard Aunapu said his daughter will have no trouble handling motherhood and NASA's most visible job.

"She's a real dynamo," he said. "The big joke about her is she needs a 28-hour day to fit in everything she's planning to do."

Nicole Mann did not dream of space flight as a young girl, her father said.

The family was surprised, he said, when she announced during her junior year at Rancho Cotate that she wanted to attend the Naval Academy.

At Annapolis, Mann became captain of the Navy soccer team and one of the most decorated women's soccer players in Patriot League history.

Taking a ride in an F/A-18 during her academy years confirmed her interest in aviation. After earning her Stanford degree -- and undergoing a Lasik eye procedure to correct her vision -- Mann enrolled in flight school and became one of the Marine Corps' first female combat pilots, her father said.

The other astronaut candidates are:

Josh A. Cassada, 39, originally from White Bear Lake, Minn., is a former naval aviator and a physicist who is co-founder of Quantum Opus, an optics research firm.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Victor J. Glover, 37, an F/A-18 pilot who holds degrees from California Polytechnic State University, Air University and Naval Postgraduate School and is serving as a Navy legislative fellow in the U.S. Congress.

Air Force Lt. Col. Tyler N. Hague, 37, of Hoxie, Kan., a graduate of the Air Force Academy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is deputy chief of the Department of Defense's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.

Christina M. Hammock, 34, of Jacksonville, N.C., who holds degrees from North Carolina State University and is National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration station chief in American Samoa.

Army Major Anne C. McClain, 34, of Spokane, Wash., a graduate of the Military Academy and the University of Bath and the University of Bristol, both in the United Kingdom. She is an OH-58 helicopter pilot.

Jessica U. Meir, 35, from Caribou, Maine, is a graduate of Brown University with an advanced degree from the International Space University and a doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She is an assistant professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School.

Army Major Andrew R. Morgan, 37, from New Castle, Pa., is a Military Academy graduate who earned a doctorate in medicine from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He has worked as an emergency physician and flight surgeon for the Army special operations community and is completing a sports medicine fellowship.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer

Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner

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