Zena Cardman didn’t always want to be a NASA astronaut, but she is one now
Zena Cardman was with a group of close friends and eating breakfast tacos the day she got a phone call that would change the rest of her life.
In late May, Cardman learned she had been chosen as one member of a class of 12 new NASA astronaut candidates who could, one day, fly to the International Space Station, or even deep space destinations like the moon or maybe Mars.
“I don’t think I ever smiled that big in my life,” Cardman said during a press conference announcing the new astronauts on Wednesday.
“I had my hand over my heart, because it was just absolute, utter overwhelming emotion. I haven’t stopped smiling since.”
Cardman is a biologist by training, and going for her doctorate at Pennsylvania State University, but she’s about to embark on two years of training that will teach her how to fly T-38 jets, learn the Russian language, take mock spacewalks, and, more generally, how to be an astronaut.
Cardman, 29, and her cohort are expected to report to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in August for training, so we caught up with Cardman on Thursday, just after NASA’s announcement.
(This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
MASHABLE: So, first of all, when and why did you decide that you wanted to become an astronaut?
CARDMAN: I think, unlike a lot of people, I didn’t actually grow up wanting to be an astronaut.
I wanted to be a writer at one point and a marine biologist. Of course my mom would always take me to see meteor showers, and I think like any kid I looked up at the night sky and just had this absolute sense of wonder and awe for the universe. Of course I loved nature and exploring and I loved outer space. Ms. Frizzle was certainly a hero of mine growing up.
CARDMAN: But it wasn’t really until college, I think, that I kind of concretely set the space program as a dream, and then later a goal. I went into college wanting to be a biologist.
I had a really great high school biology teacher. So through the biology program at UNC [University of North Carolina], I had the chance to do a lot of different field research and work for all of these projects with big teams and often in really remote, bizarre, unusual places. And then, you know, it sort of snowballed into this set of skills that I thought could be applicable.
When the last class was selected in 2013, I knew I already very definitely wanted to be an astronaut someday. So, when they sent out the announcement that they would be having application for the next round of astronauts, I think at least a dozen people sent me the link, so it wasn’t exactly secret at that point. People were thinking of me.
And I applied, and it’s just been an awesome, unreal, awesome ride ever since.
“I haven’t stopped smiling since.”
MASHABLE: Did you apply in the [last round] too, or was this the first round that you’d applied in?
CARDMAN: [The year] 2015 was actually when this round opened. The astronauts who were selected in 2013, I didn’t apply that round because I wasn’t yet qualified.
I was barely out of college. You need a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] degree and then at least three years of progressive experience after that, and I did not meet the bare minimum. Even this time, I thought, “Maybe I don’t technically meet the bare minimum requirement. I’m still in school. I’m still a student.”
But I applied anyway, thinking, “I’ve got nothing to lose. This will be a really cool experience no matter what.”
And then yeah, at every stage along the way, it’s just been, “Wow, what a cool experience, everyone has been awesome. I’ll try again next time.” And yeah, it just kept going!
MASHABLE: What experiences from your previous life, you know, your pre-astronaut days, are you hoping that you can bring to your life as an astronaut? You’ve done field work in Antarctica. You’ve done all of these really amazing and interesting things.
CARDMAN: I think there’s a lot of overlap between doing research in these remote places like Antarctica, to spaceflight because you’re far away.
You have to learn to fix things. You can’t just run to the store to buy a new part. I’ve been joking that there’s also a similar lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in Antarctica and in outer space.
More so than that, I think that really just the skills of working in a team, a really close team, with very diverse people. Everyone from engineers to in my previous research project, divers.
Now test pilots and biologists like me and getting to use those really diverse skills and working together for a project that’s bigger than any one of the pieces that we can contribute individually.
MASHABLE: Money notwithstanding, if you could pick any place in the solar system to go, where would you go and why?
CARDMAN: Oh, wow, I mean, really, I think I’m going to come out of this training period with that “have spacesuit, will travel” idea; I’ll go anywhere.
From a science standpoint, I’d have to say Mars. I would love to explore the surface of mars with my geobiology background.
And of course, the Space Station appeals. It’s almost like one of these research bases where I’ve been, and I love that community. This little outpost that’s out there to do science and exploration.
Honestly, any of the directions NASA goes in the next several years, I’m onboard all the way.
MASHABLE: What are you excited about for the next couple years of training? But more important, what are you most nervous about?
CARDMAN: I think more so than nervous, we’re all just incredibly humbled and excited and really eager to get going with this new stage of our lives. It’s going to be a lot like going back to school.
We’re going to have to be sponges learning everything from flying T-38 jets to techniques for spacewalking. I know a lot of us feel like we have imposter syndrome right now, like, “who did we fool to get here? This is just unreal.”
But it’s going to start getting realer, I think. But yeah, most of all, we’re just, we’re so excited.
MASHABLE: Is there a particular vehicle — like the Boeing Starliner, or SpaceX’s Dragon, even the International Space Station — you’re most excited to check out? Is there something you’d be really pumped to fly in?
CARDMAN: I’d be really excited for any of those vehicles. It’s such really exciting time that we have all of these private companies developing tools for spaceflight and these new vehicles, and of course, NASA right alongside them building the next generation of things that we will drive to space.
It’s really just awesome, and the Space Station is up there already, so of course, that’s a really tangible thing to say, “Yes, of course I want to go there.” And the research that’s happening onboard the Space Station is just, it’s awesome, and I think incredibly applicable to life back on Earth.
So yeah, I can’t pick a favorite. Sorry.
MASHABLE: I think, if you’re up for it, it’s time for the lightning round.
CARDMAN: Okay, bring it on.
MASHABLE: What is your favorite space movie?
CARDMAN: Right now, The Martian.
MASHABLE: What’s your favorite book? Space or non-space.
CARDMAN: So, actually they asked me this in my interview, and my favorite is Are You My Mother?
MASHABLE: I love that book
CARDMAN: It’s a great book
MASHABLE: Favorite superhero?
CARDMAN: Oh, that’s a great question. Sorry, I don’t have a gut response to this one. Let’s go with Wonder Woman.
MASHABLE: Favorite band?
CARDMAN: The Rolling Stones
MASHABLE: Favorite planet?
CARDMAN: [laughs] Earth
MASHABLE: Favorite moon?
CARDMAN: You know, I’m going to go with our own. Earth’s moon. I’m sensing a theme.
I hope that’s not too lame, but I really like where we are.
MASHABLE: Favorite movie?
CARDMAN: Might be Terminator 2
MASHABLE: Favorite TV show?
CARDMAN: Probably Game of Thrones right now
MASHABLE: Waffles or pancakes?
CARDMAN: Waffles. I have a chicken named Waffles.
MASHABLE: Favorite sport to watch?
CARDMAN: I love watching track and field.
MASHABLE: Favorite sport to play?
MASHABLE: This is kind of a funny one. Do you think aliens exist?
CARDMAN: I hope so, but who knows. I think it would be just as profound if they don’t exist, but yeah, I’m rooting for it.
But of course, to me, aliens might mean just microbes on another planet, but that’s cool enough.