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Nicole Mann was about 8 when she changed her first tire and started bleeding brakes in her father’s garage. “He would always tell me to put some elbow grease into it,” Mann said. “We call him the wizard because he just knows everything.”

Mann, now 35, took the advice to heart. And while she’s spent her life in awe of her dad, others are now in awe of her accomplishments.

Mann was selected to be a part of NASA’s astronaut training program for 2013. Seven others also were chosen for the program, including other military pilots, a flight physician, a Harvard professor and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration station chief. They are slated to part of the astronaut corps for the first human mission to Mars, which could come in the 2030s. A mission to land on an asteroid could come a decade before that.

For Mann, getting there wasn’t easy, but it’s been a good ride, she said. Currently she’s an F/A-18 fighter pilot, and a Marine Corps major stationed at Patuxent River Naval Air Station where she helps lead planning and execution for the Navy’s top fighter pilots and the engineers who support them. Mann graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, as well as Stanford University and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Pax River.

She’s flown missions in the Middle East and has led other top guns in combat. As a test pilot, Mann said she’s pushed the F/A-18 as fast and as slow, high and as low as it can go. “You get a ton of adrenaline,” she said.

The job is physically and mentally demanding. “You’re pulling a lot of G’s, and that wears on the body,” she said, not to mention “a lot of pressure to execute and do the right things and make the right decisions.”

Mann was packing her house in Cedar Cove this week to head for Houston and get settled before astronaut training begins in August. Despite the list of professional accomplishments that won her a place with NASA, she said part of her is just a California girl who likes to swap recipes with her sister and spend time with her 16-month-old son, Jack.

“After flying jets all afternoon,” Mann said, she’s usually at home playing with Jack, “teaching him to walk and throwing a ball.” Back home, in Penngrove, Calif., she and her sister, Kirsten, plan five-course meals for the whole family.

Family is one of her greatest loves, but balancing that with work has been her biggest challenge, she said. Her husband, Travis, is also an F/A-18 pilot, but for the Navy. So, when he deploys and Mann is training around the world with NASA, family will pitch in to care for her son. “You can’t do it all by yourself,” she said.

She makes it work because she’s living her dream. From childhood, Mann knew she wanted to travel into space. “Most kids have that dream at some point,” she said. “That was something I kept in the back of my mind.”

She went on to study mechanical engineering in college, again drawing from those evenings she watched her dad, a Vietnam veteran, work for hours fixing cars in his garage. She played soccer at the Naval Academy, bolstering her sense of team and discipline. And, Mann realized early on that she wanted to be a Marine as she watched them on campus, admiring their “sense of honor and tradition.”

No matter what happens, she said, “I am a Marine every second of every day for the rest of my life.”

Things took a major turn during the summer of her senior year at the academy when she got to ride in the back seat of an F-18. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding me? I could be a Marine and a fighter pilot?’” It was too good to be true, she said.

Then, things got more interesting. When NASA placed a job announcement for new astronaut trainees, back in 2011, Mann said she reviewed her resume closely and decided she had a chance — a longshot, with more than 6,100 applicants — but it was a chance she had to take.

Now that she’s gotten the word that she’s in, Mann said she dreams about her future. “How it would be up there, and being weightless,” she said. “Not to mention the view would be amazing.”

To learn more

Marine Corps Maj. Nicole Aunapu Mann, an F/A-18 pilot at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, was selected for NASA’s astronaut candidate program to begin this August. She was among eight candidates selected from a pool of more than 6,100 applicants.

To see a video about Mann’s reaction to her selection, go to

To see a slideshow, go to

Mann currently works at Pax River in the Strike Planning and Execution Systems program office. She graduated from Stanford University, the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Pax River and flies F/A-18s.

“Maj. Mann has been performing at the ‘astronaut’ level in PMA-281 since her arrival,” said program manager Mike Paul. “In my time in the military and as a civilian, she would be my first choice for this program.”

Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division said: “The Naval Test Pilot School has a long distinguished list of graduates that have gone on to our space program at NASA. These top performers from our recent graduating class speak to the exceptional value of TPS, its excellent faculty and outstanding students.”

Anne C. McClain, a West Point grad and helicopter pilot who recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, also was selected for the 2013 NASA program.