The crew of NASA’s impending space launch includes an Aboriginal woman
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – October 3 will be a historic day as the first Native American woman to travel to space on a NASA mission, but the effects of that flight could go back even further back on Earth.
At a time when other parts of the world are recognizing the value of including Aboriginal people and other diverse viewpoints in areas that were once excluded, a spaceflight planned for Monday could be an important moment. Astronaut Nicole Onapo-Man, who is Wailaki, will be aboard the NASA and SpaceX Crew 5 mission to the International Space Station.
With this flight, Mrs. Mann will become the first Native American woman in space, following the 2002 flight of Chickasaw Nation member John Herrington, the first Native American man in space.
Back on Earth, many people will look up at the sky and see, perhaps for the first time, a kind of mirror: someone like them taking a journey that some might not have thought possible.
Indigenous representation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields has begun to grow in recent years. And while there is still much work to be done to achieve equality, this space flight is a special moment of pride for young Indigenous people.
“It’s great to see someone from First Nation go into space or do other great things. I’m always excited to see anyone from First Nation do something,” said Arin Zukol, a former Wiikwemkoong High School student who is now studying mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto. Like being an actor, a doctor, or even an astronaut.
Pursuing a STEM career wasn’t on Miss Zokul’s mind until she faced the Canadian First Nations Robotics Team (FRC) of Wiikwemkoong High School in 2017. She later became one of the captains for Team 5672, First Nations STEM, a team that won national awards and ranked first in the three First in the World Robotics Championship.
Now, Ms. Zokul said she hopes to use her future degree in mechanical engineering to work with aircraft or even spacecraft. It’s a similar story of the many young Indigenous people who gained a first introduction to STEM fields through similar high school programs, bringing them open access to a new set of potential jobs.
Without the influence of a program like FRC, Ms. Zokul said she would never have pursued engineering.
“Coming from an Aboriginal school, we don’t have the same resources, so it was really cool to have the robotics team. It was Mr. Mara who suggested I look into engineering. I hadn’t thought of that before.”
The transition had its challenges. Ms. Zokul said she would have liked to see more support for high school children in the reserve interested in pursuing STEM or commerce.
Since then, she has done an internship at FRC, helping to guide underprivileged children across Ontario through various FRC programs. Ms. Zokul said she wants to make sure that today’s children have the resources they need to succeed.
“Right now, everything is changing for First Nation people. It would be nice to see our first First Nation Prime Minister,” she said. “When I was growing up, Aboriginal people were seen as ‘less than.’” I never thought natives could be anything, but seeing my robotics team helped. When I saw the kids around me doing it, I knew I could do it too.”
Chris Mara, Teacher of the First Nations STEM Team, has seen the impact of representation in STEM since introducing the team in the 2014-2015 school year. Before that, the school participated in the Olympiad of Science competitions.
“At First Robotics, it is often said, ‘If they see you, they can be you,’” said Mr. Mara. “So that students can see STEM role models, lead in space exploration, and see themselves in these people, There is no such thing.”
Mr. Mara said his school’s STEM-focused graduates have moved on to careers such as doctors, nurses, nuclear engineers, architecture and crafts, among others.
“Students are curious and already have a great desire to be part of contemporary movements in STEM fields,” he said. “Being able to see someone representing them would be a great momentum builder.”
Northern Ontario has its own astronaut, Roberta Bondar, who was the first Canadian woman in space. She told The Manitoulin Expositor that this space flight will be a major event for the world.
“It is also about fellowship. It is about shared learning, it is about respecting where others are in their lives and what one can give and help others become their best self,” said Dr. Bondar, who is also a neurologist.
Dr. Bondar recently referred to Mrs. Mann’s planned space flight while introducing CREE singer-songwriter Buffy St. Mary at a concert at the National Center for the Arts in September to honor the musician.
Dr. Bondar said there have never been any Aboriginal astronauts in Canada. This may be in part because Canada’s military and space programs are smaller, but also because people – especially people from diverse backgrounds – have fewer opportunities to acquire the specific skills that make them excellent astronauts.
“One has to rethink the early American space programme. All the men were men, though there was a shadow group of women,” she said. “I don’t think any of them had any representation except the traditional Caucasian viewpoint, obviously.” And that’s not true.”
In order to achieve success as astronauts, Dr. Bondar said, people must have more than technical knowledge in areas such as engineering and space medicine.
“You have to understand where we are going as a form of life. The idea of being able to speak more than one language, the idea of being able to visit other cultures or proving that one has affinity and respect for people from different backgrounds.
Dr Bondar said programs like the FRC at First Nations, as embraced by Wiikwemkoong, are needed to connect underrepresented people with technical skills they may not have easily access to.
“Robot projects and all these kinds of things are important because they start to train a person’s mind to think about how things are made, how things are put together. And in the natural world, there is a lot we can learn from what the natives saw many years ago.”
In fact, the indigenous people are the original scientists on the planet, creating innovations such as canoes and kayaks, but also domesticating many types of crops that are still grown today. Many people had complex understandings of the planet and the stars above.
“I used to say in my notes (to Buffy St. Mary) that the moon is the silent traveler. He has seen the history of the planet over thousands and millions of years, and in Buffy’s song she talks about when people go to the moon, they find out that the natives were there. That’s because The spirit was there.
Another important principle associated with indigenous cultures that would benefit the universe, she said, is the idea of deep relationships and respect.
“Sometimes in our society time is the magic bullet, that age-old expression of having a quick fix to something without learning about the systems around us,” said Dr. Bondar.
She now runs the Roberta Bondar Foundation to support young people, including Indigenous children, through interactive education programmes. Lots of traditional knowledge braiding programming with technology.
SpaceX Crew-5 is scheduled to launch on October 3 at 12:45 p.m. at Cape Canaveral.
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