Orange County

From Chapel Hill to the stars: UNC-CH alumna now an astronaut candidate

UNC alumna Zena Cardman is among the 12 men and women that NASA announced Wednesday as its 2017 astronaut candidate class.
UNC alumna Zena Cardman is among the 12 men and women that NASA announced Wednesday as its 2017 astronaut candidate class. NASA

Three years ago, Zena Cardman left UNC-Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in marine science. On Wednesday, she joined NASA’s newest crop of astronaut candidates.

The 29-year-old is scheduled to start training in August, along with 11 other men and women the space agency said made the cut from a record number of 18,300-plus applicants.

“All of us were absolutely in awe of every single person we met during the application process,” Cardman said, agreeing with the general sentiment among the candidates that there were many deserving people who lost out. “It’s truly humbling to be here.”

A native of Illinois who now calls Williamsburg, Virginia, home, Cardman is a “double Tar Heel,” the tag Chancellor Carol Folt and other campus leaders apply to people who’ve earned two degrees from the university. She earned a bachelor’s in biology, with minors in creative writing and marine science, in 2010 after arriving on campus with an academic scholarship.

In her course through the program, “she was remarkable,” said Harvey Seim, chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences.

Along with scientific skills that in 2014 produced “one of the most impressive master’s theses we’ve had in the last few years,” she stood out for an “ability to communicate” that owed a lot to her interest in both the arts and the sciences, Seim said.

“Her visual presentations were always stunning because, unlike the rest of us, she actually had some artistic skill,” he quipped.

Both in her undergraduate and graduate years, Cardman worked in the lab of marine sciences professor Andreas Teske, and wound up turning her attention to the foul-smelling microbes that cluster around the deep-sea vents beneath the Gulf of California.

“She was always adventurous,” Teske said after watching the welcome ceremony NASA staged Wednesday afternoon for the 12 candidates in Houston. “Going into space and exploring other worlds is the ultimate research frontier, and she’s ready to do this.”

NASA says the candidates will prepare for the chance one day to join a mission on the International Space Station, or to fly on one of the new vehicles the agency and private-sector companies like SpaceX are developing. The initial training process lasts two years and covers such things as spacecraft systems and the Russian language.

Cardman is the first woman with a UNC-Chapel Hill degree to join the space program as an astronaut candidate. Three other alumni preceded her. William Thornton, a 1952 physics graduate and 1963 MD, was the first and flew twice on the Space Shuttle in the 1980s after a long NASA apprenticeship that began in 1967.

Charles Brady, a 1971 graduate who also earned a medical degree at Duke University, joined the astronaut corps in 1992. His group also included Jerry Linenger, who earned a master’s in public health and a Ph.D. in epidemiology from Chapel Hill in 1989. Brady flew a nearly 17-day mission on the shuttle Columbia in 1996, while Linenger’s two flights included a 1997 stay on the Russian space station Mir that was marred by an in-flight fire.

NASA made the new candidates available Wednesday afternoon for a Reddit ask-me-anything. There, one of the first questions to surface concerned the risks of spaceflight and how they’d sized them up before accepting the agency’s offer.

Cardman said for her, accepting was “definitely a no-brainer,” and she’s “grateful for the training and support we’ll receive to make it as safe as possible.”

She added that the most difficult aspect of the application process was the months of waiting that preceded each stage of the winnowing — and the secrecy NASA required the candidates to maintain after they received their offers on May 25.

“It was such an absolute, utter surprise and joy to get that phone call on the 25th, but really difficult not to share that joy with a lot of the people who made it possible for me to be here in the first place,” she said. “[I’m] really, really happy the secret is out now.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

NASA’s 12 new astronauts

▪  Navy Lt. Kayla Barron of Richland, Washington, a submarine-warfare officer and nuclear engineer who was among the first class of women commissioned into the submarine service and now works at the U.S. Naval Academy.

▪  Zena Cardman of Williamsburg, Virginia, a graduate research fellow at the National Science Foundation with a specialty in microorganisms in subsurface environments such as caves.

▪  Air Force Lt. Col. Raja Chari of Cedar Falls, Iowa, director of the F-35 Integrated Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

▪  Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Dominick of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, department head for Strike Fighter Squadron 115.

▪  Bob Hines of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a NASA research pilot at Johnson Space Center.

▪  Warren "Woody" Hoburg of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

▪  Dr. Jonny Kim of Los Angeles, a Navy lieutenant who trained as a SEAL and is completing his residency in emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

▪  Robb Kulin of Anchorage, Alaska, who leads the launch chief engineering group for SpaceX at Hawthorne, California.

▪  Marine Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli of Baldwin, New York, who tests H-1 helicopters and serves as a quality assurance and avionics officer for Marine Operational Test Evaluation Squadron 1 in Yuma, Arizona.

▪  Loral O'Hara of Sugar Land, Texas, a research engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

▪  Dr. Francisco "Frank" Rubio of Miami, an Army major who is serving as a surgeon in Fort Carson, Colorado.

▪  Jessica Watkins of Lafayette, Colorado, a postdoctoral fellow at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.