“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!”
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.
Although she points out that it wasn’t as “cutthroat” as she imagined, Cardman describes the entire process as “definitely unlike any other job interview that I’d had.” Although much of the interview process remains off-the-record and under wraps, it all sounds a little more like the interviews shown at the start of Men In Black than anything else.
Considering that Cardman’s expertise is in extreme life forms – the sort lurking around deep-sea hydrothermal vents and beneath ice sheets – talk of alien life wouldn’t be amiss here. However, it seems that NASA was far more interested in her as a person, and in her experiences, than her academic background.
“I expected to do so many sit ups in a certain amount of time, or run a mile, or do a hundred pull ups or whatever, but they really are just trying to get to know you,” she explains.
“Really, they want to know if they’re willing to spend six months in a tin can with you.”
In any case, her academic career – much of which was spent on isolated research vessels heading along the coastline of the Southern Continent, along with a small but diverse crew – certainly appealed to the upper echelons of NASA. After all, this sounds a lot like what she will be doing in a couple of years’ time.
“Antarctica is like summer camp for grown-ups, but cold,” Cardman tells us. You work together, you play together. It’s a really great experience because you have all these different types of people with a common goal of doing a science project – from academics to engineers to cooks to electricians.”
She describes her time in Antarctica – “a constant nature documentary” – as instrumental to not just career, but her life. “It’s amazing, getting to see penguins in real life, getting to smell penguins in real life – that last part is less exciting. They are endlessly adorable and fun to watch.”
She added that, on Christmas morning, while they were out on a pair of Zodiac speedboats, “some humpbacks appeared right next to me – you could reach out and touch them if you wanted to. I am so grateful for that experience.”
Cardman’s time in extreme environments conducting cutting-edge science certainly seems like a good fit for a future astronaut, but her earlier time at university featured a somewhat more eclectic mix of subjects, including biology, marine science, and poetry.
She signed up for poetry at first simply because all science majors had to take an English class, but thanks to a wonderful lecturer – a long-term substitute to boot – and a fantastic course, she ended up writing a thesis on the subject. “It’d be my last chance to do that sort of thing,” she adds.
We mention the scene in the movie Contact, where protagonist Dr. Ellie Arroway, upon seeing an alien civilization for the first time, remarked: “They should have sent a poet.” How does Cardman feel about finally being an astronaut that ticks this box?
“I hope that experience will help me convey the things that I see when I eventually go to space,” she tells us, before adding: “God, I really… I have no idea what to expect.
“From what I understand, this job continues to feel surreal and fake until that moment that you lift off. But I think getting to see the curve of the Earth against that black background – it must be completely life-altering. I can’t even imagine what it’ll be like, but I hope I’ll be able to convey that back home.”
So what happens now, we ask. With a wonderful sense of nonchalance, Cardman tells us that “the first two years is the training period. It’ll be like being back in school again; everything from learning to fly P-38 supersonic jets to learning spacewalking techniques.”
She’ll also be mandated to learn the Russian language, “which I’m very excited about – I’ve never learned a language that has a different alphabet before.” Robotics and the workings of the International Space Station (ISS) will also feature heavily.
Indeed, the ISS is where she’ll be headed first, but soon after, “our eyes will turn outwards beyond low-Earth orbit, just like it did with the Apollo program.” Cardman says that whether it’s an asteroid, the Moon, Mars, or anywhere else, she’ll be fine. “I’ll happily go wherever they send me.”
Cardman has done much and explored a lot of Planet Earth in the name of science, and she’s not even 30 yet. That makes her a powerful ambassador for women in STEM – and now, she’s also going to be an astronaut. It’s a one-in-a-billion legacy, and something she doesn’t credit to hard work alone.
“Part of it is that I followed what interested me,” she notes. “But more importantly, I got lucky – I had mentors that wrote back and said they would help me, who took a chance on me when I was just some undergrad.
“I will be forever grateful to them – and to my family of course, who let me go on all these crazy adventures, and who are still supporting me on this new, wild adventure.
“I think I speak for everyone in this class when I say, we haven’t done this alone. That’s for sure.”