Meet NASA Astronaut Zena Cardman: Antarctic Adventurer And Trained Poet

Zena Cardman, a future astronaut, seen here in Antarctica. xyzena.com

“More than 18,000 applied when the job posting went live,” future astronaut Zena Cardman told IFLScience. “After the first round of interviews, there were just 120 remaining; for the final round, there were 50. And then there were 12 – and I’m one of them.”

The allure of the dark star ocean is difficult for anyone to resist – the enormity of it all, the planets, the galaxies, the comets, and the black holes, all wrapped in an impermeable mystery.

No wonder so many kids want to be an astronaut when they grow up, but so few actually get to see if their dreams match up to the extraordinary reality. Shifting expectations, societal barriers, and pressures all contribute to this discrepancy, but the extremely tough selection process itself definitely has something to do with it.

Back in May, NASA announced that it had picked its Class of 2017 – 12 highly skilled and ludicrously lucky individuals that would be trained up to escape Earth’s atmosphere. We sat down to have a chat with a couple of them – both future heroines taking women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to the extreme.

Cardman, a self-confessed “microbe wrangler” and Antarctica frequenter, was first up. Hailing from Virginia, she was in the middle of her PhD in microbiology at Penn State when she applied, and even when she received the fate-changing final call.

“I genuinely thought I wouldn’t get it, and I thought that at every stage of the process. The day after I turned in my application, there was all this stuff in the press about 18,000 people applying – so I thought, there goes that!”

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The first round of applications opened in December 2015, posted online across several job application websites, like any ordinary job would be. Then came the unnerving waiting. Months flew by, and the first interview requests were sent out in September 2016. After the second round in April, the 12 winners of the competition to end all competitions were found out in May.

“Getting the call for the first round interview was one of complete shock – even more of a shock than the second round one, it was so out of the blue,” Cardman added.

“Just meeting everyone that were experts at what they do, with such a diversity of experience – and so humble and nice on top of that – I just thought there was no way, I wouldn’t be picked out of these people.”

She was ultimately chosen, of course. We point out that she now has the stress of actually being an astronaut for real. “Well that’s a wonderful problem to have,” she replied.

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