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Penngrove astronaut Nicole Mann talks to Rohnert Park students about space career

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When astronaut Nicole Mann told 6-year-old Jionni Coletta there are no rain or clouds on the moon, the University Elementary School student’s jaw dropped.

There is almost no atmosphere, and that means zero gravity, said Mann, who spoke to four classes at the Rohnert Park school Tuesday via video broadcast from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“Their footprints will stay there forever because there’s no wind on the moon,” she said, and Coletta’s eyes grew even wider.

Mann, a Penngrove native and Rancho Cotate High School graduate, spoke to about 90 of the youngest University Elementary students and shared what it’s like to be an astronaut training for spaceflight.

Her virtual presentation was part of a school initiative to expose students to different careers involving science, technology, engineering, art and math, and show them that unique jobs young people often dream about are attainable for Sonoma County youth.

“If there’s anybody in the classroom today that thinks it might be cool to be an astronaut, it might be cool to go to the moon or Mars,” Mann said, “you guys are hitting right in the perfect time for when we’re going to need astronauts when you’re grown up and ready to go.”

Mann is only months away from her first trip to space. A U.S. Naval Academy and Stanford University graduate, she is scheduled to fly the first manned mission of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft later this year.

She will stay in the International Space Station for six months. The goal of the NASA contract with Boeing and SpaceX is to help provide round-trip transportation to crews working on the space station.

A successful unmanned test launch of the Starliner was completed at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in December.

“This is a big step to get us to that big red planet,” Mann said to the wide-eyed students glued to the screen.

Mann’s virtual visit was years in the making, said kindergarten teacher Ryan Kurada, who has been trying for four years to get an astronaut to speak to the school during its annual job program focused on science, technology, engineering, art and math careers. At the end of the semester, students will make a public presentation to the community spotlighting a career that aligns with their interests.

“I have a feeling at the end of this project we’re going to have a lot of students interested in being astronauts,” Kurada said, adding Tuesday’s presentation was a powerful opportunity for young girls to see and learn about a female astronaut.

More than a dozen students approached a laptop at the front of the school’s multipurpose room and questioned Mann directly about every aspect of her job.

Some were surprisingly inquisitive. One student asked how long it takes to get to space. Her response was three to four days traveling to the moon and six months to get to Mars. Another student wondered how astronauts communicate, or what speaking out loud sounds like in space.

Others were more lighthearted. One girl asked about aliens. Another inquired about how astronauts eat, so naturally a different student asked how they use the bathroom.

“You have to be very careful because things can float away in space,” Mann said, explaining that waste is held in special toilets with sealed containers and eventually is disposed on cargo ships.

Mann’s presentation dovetailed with a recent focus on the solar system, said another kindergarten teacher, Tiffany Gage. Showing the value of math and science was important, Gage said, although it was especially heartening to see young students grasp that it was their generation that could supply the first astronauts to walk on Mars.

“My students overall seemed to just be interested in how far we can explore,” Gage said. “They want to know how far we can go.”

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