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Q&A with NASA astronaut and UNC alum Zena Cardman


Photo courtesy of Zena Cardman

Zena Cardman, a 2010 alumna who also got a master’s degree in marine science at UNC, is one of 12 people in NASA’s 2017 Astronaut Class. Features editor Brinley Lowe asked Cardman about her career and time at UNC.

The Daily Tar Heel: How did UNC prepare you to be an astronaut?

Zena Cardman: Between courses at UNC and opportunities to do field research outside of my coursework, I wound up with a lot of experience in remote places like Antarctica and the Arctic. I think that doing science far away from home in an operational environment really helped.

DTH: When did you know you wanted to be an astronaut?

ZC: I actually wrote about it on my application essay to UNC and deleted it because I didn’t have a tangible reason why. But during college, it became more of a goal and not just a fantasy dream. After my junior year, I started working with a NASA project called Pavilion Lake and with that project, I got to work with astronauts. It became obvious that these are real people and that was a real career that people actually have.

DTH: Tell me about how you got the position.

ZC: The application opened in December 2015. The basic requirements are pretty simple: you need a college degree in a STEM field and then three years of experience after that ... after I turned in my application, I saw that 18,000 other people had applied and at that point I thought, ‘Well, there goes that chance. I guess I’ll try again next time.’ They open these applications up roughly every four years.

In early September 2016, I got a call out of the blue on a Friday morning from Houston and they said, ‘We’d like you to come down to Houston for an interview.’ The first round of the interview process is just three days. You go to Houston for everything ­— from a formal sit-down interview with the selection board to medical testing and physical testing and a lot of psychological exams.

The best part was getting to meet the other applicants. They brought us down in groups of 10. It was everyone from military tech pilots to engineers and medical doctors and me, the microbiologist. Just getting to meet these people who I would never intersect with in my normal career was really fun.

Then you wait another couple of months. In December, I got another phone call inviting me down for a finalist interview. That one wasn’t until April of 2017. In the second round, there are 50 people left and it’s a week-long process. It’s sort of like the first round but more intense ... we all knew we were getting a call with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ on May 25. I’m really lucky and overjoyed that mine was a ‘yes.’

DTH: Given the odds, can you believe you got it?

ZC: I think any of the people that I met in the finalist and semifinalist rounds would have been excellent. I had serious impostor syndrome looking at their careers versus me, the grad student.

DTH: What will you be doing at NASA?

ZC: The first two years are a training period. Whether we’re test pilots or biologists or doctors or engineers, we go through the same training. It’s everything from learning how to fly P-38 jets to learning the Russian language. It’s going to be like being back in school.

DTH: Do you see this as your lifelong career?

ZC: Yeah, I think this is it. I know what I’m going to be when I grow up

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