Our People: Mana Vautier

By Jill Nicholas

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Mana Vautier, back in Rotorua. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER
Mana Vautier, back in Rotorua. PHOTO/STEPHEN PARKER

Daring to dream big ignited Te Arawa son's ambition to aim for the moon

Our People's shamelessly star struck.

Meeting Mana Vautier is our first handshake with a man from Nasa, let alone one who considers Rotorua home and is raising his five children to be as Kiwi as kids growing up in Texas can be.

From birth he's steeped them in their Maori heritage; they have Maori middle names, perform the haka and are avid All Blacks fans.

When the ABs played in Chicago a couple of years ago Mana drove 18 hours so they could be on the sidelines. Preparations for their present visit home saved them from witnessing their heroes' recent Irish drubbing.

When we meet Mana he's wearing an All Blacks polo shirt, looking every bit the clean-cut Kiwi bloke however his accent has a distinctive American edge "but I insist my kids pronounce tomato the New Zealand way."

He's lived Stateside since his 2002 enrolment in Utah's Brigham Young University, graduating with a BSc in physics and astronomy with math tossed in (note his use of the American singular).

Study in the science of aerospace for his Masters was at Auburn University, Alabama.

It's a combo that's shuttled him onto the Nasa Johnson Space Centre, his present role's a senior consultant. Impressive, we venture. "Nah, I'm just an ordinary Joe who dared to dream big . . . my Maori culture's shaped me."

He enjoys deflating our "Houston, we have lift off" perception of Nasa.

"Nasa is not just about sending rockets into space, there are a lot of different systems and countries on the space station, my team ensures they all play nicely together."

Those countries include Russia. "We have a very good working relationship with the Russians; our astronauts, their cosmonauts spend months in orbit together so they have to get on."

Could Mana be NASA's sole representative from Maoridom's ranks? "The only one I know of but with 100,000 people spread across the country, possibly not."

Our People learnt of Mana and his Nasa workplace at that most Maori of places, the marae-based Rangatahi Court where elders assist judges to find ways young offenders can sort themselves out.

The day we attended one youngster shyly confessed he wanted to be an astronaut.

Kaumatua Anaru Rangiheuea (Our People, March 19, 2016) pounced.

"If my nephew can work for NASA so can you," he decreed.

So how was it the Arawa boy whose whakapapa is tied to Whakarewarewa via his Tuhourangi mother, Hinekaitangi Awhi Vautier (nee Skipwith), came to make the Nasa campus his workplace?

"I guess I dared to dream big."

Early school years were spent in Hong Kong where his dad, Ian Vautier, was an aircraft engineer, boarding at Auckland's Saint Kentigern College followed.

Mana spent a year immersed in physics at Auckland University before two years' missionary work in New South Wales with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

We slip in a dig about him being a Mormon door-knocker. His expressive eyes twinkle.

"Yeah, there was a bit of that; I came home to random jobs, worked on a rubbish truck, did door-to-door sales before settling as a cargo clerk for Air New Zealand at Auckland International Airport."

So he'd always had his eyes on the sky?

"Since I was a kid my ultimate dream's been to fly in space.

"My thesis advisor at Auburn had connections in Houston, I was lucky enough to get a summer internship with Odyssey Space Research, that was incredible, I was in Houston, which I consider the heart of human space life, working in a building where I passed astronauts, flight directors, incredible engineers in the corridor, now eight years later it's become everyday normal, it reminds me why I love what I do."

The internship opened doors to a full time job with Odyssey, in 2012 he joined international company Booz Allen Hamilton at NASA.

In 2004 he married his American-born wife Annette, they met at Brigham Young University.

"The wedding was going to be in the US but my mother became too sick to travel. Annette suggested we marry here, her parents didn't have passports, we had to expedite that, flew out the next day." Their ceremony was at Hamilton's Mormon Temple.

"We had a two-day honeymoon, we thought we had to get back to classes, in hindsight did we really?"

The Kaikoura earthquake put paid to a planned South Island family tour. As one who knows more than a thing or two about gravitation Mana doesn't discount the theory the recent super moon played its part in reshaping his homeland.

Aotearoa keeps drawing him, he's been back three times this year, once for his nan's tangi. In June he was in Rotorua as guest speaker at Matariki X, in January he was in Palmerston North to help launch Massey University's Puhoro Science Academy.

"I'm an ambassador for the programme which aims to foster and develop Maori students from Years 11-13, encourage them to engage in science, technology, engineering, maths through to university.

"I think Maori are getting better at this, in the past they had this idea they would be unskilled, it's great to see that changing."

Does Mana still harbour his own dream to shoot for the stars?

"I think I've partially reached my ultimate dream to fly in space, I've applied for astronaut training, it's an 18-month selection process, training two to five years.

"I'd love to go to Mars but don't think I could be away from my family that long however I'd go to the moon in a heartbeat. I'm fascinated exploring anything, especially space."

MANA VAUTIER
Born: Auckland, 1980.
Education: Hong Kong, Saint Kentigern College, Auckland University, Brigham Young and Auburn Universities, USA.
Family: Wife Annette, four sons, one daughter; parents in Rotorua.
Iwi affiliations: Te Arawa (Tuhourangi), Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Kahungunu, Ngai Tahu.
Interests: Family, running, Engineers Without Borders. "My kids' PTAs", volunteer fire fighter, church and community service work (helped with Louisiana flood clean up and repairs homes for those unable to afford to), local chapter Brigham Young's alumni association.
On living in Texas: "Great barbecues, more smoky than hangi."
On Rotorua: "I love the native bird song, the smell of trees and ferns in the Redwoods, the thermal steam, the culture; I love my children experiencing that."
Personal Philosophy: "Work hard, study hard, play hard, rest hard, dream big, go get your dreams."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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