Zena Cardman’s friends made her breakfast tacos on May 25. They settled in to watch Apollo 13, about a space crew that overcame severe equipment malfunction to return to Earth.
Cardman was beyond nervous: She knew she would hear from NASA that day concerning whether she’d been accepted into the astronaut program.
Shortly before noon, her phone rang.
“We’d like to invite you to come to Houston.”
Just like that, Cardman, 29, a doctoral student in geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, was named one of 12 astronaut candidates, culled from a record 18,300 applications and narrowed to 50 finalists.
“I have never smiled so big,” said Cardman, a Williamsburg, Va., native who now plans to finish her doctorate after training.
The young woman who wrote that she wanted to become an astronaut on her college application, then deleted it because she thought it was unrealistic, had achieved what was once her dream and then became her goal. Getting in was about 74 times harder than being admitted to Harvard, according to Business Insider.
She will join four Penn State alumni who are among the nation’s nearly 340 astronauts to date (only 44 are currently active) since the first crew was selected in 1959.
“This will be my job for the rest of my life,” said a beaming Cardman, the daughter of a children’s librarian and nuclear physicist. “I know what I’m going to be when I grow up.”
Others in her class of seven men and five women include test pilots, a physician and former Navy SEAL, a planetary scientist who worked on the Mars rover, a submarine warfare officer, and a research engineer. They will report to Johnson Space Center in Houston in August.
Candidates must be U.S. citizens, have a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, and have three years of active experience or 1,000 hours of flight time. Astronauts earn between $66,000 and $144,566, depending on their qualifications.
This was the first time since 1978 that NASA has received a record number of applications, said Brandi K. Dean, a spokeswoman for NASA.
Cardman thinks space films may have spurred interest in the program. She said NASA opened applications for her class around the time The Martian, starring Matt Damon as an astronaut who gets left behind on the “red planet,” premiered and not too long after Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut, came out.
But it also comes as the United States nears completion of the Orion spacecraft, capable of carrying people to Mars and beyond, and as two commercial space vehicles are being developed.
“It’s literally an explosion of space opportunity that’s being created right now,” said Jim Pawelczyk, a Penn State kinesiology professor who flew in space for 16 days aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1998. “Zena is going to be a part of that. That’s incredibly exciting.”
Pawelczyk, who got his master’s in physiology from Penn State, was the fourth alumnus to fly in space. The first was Paul J. Weitz in 1973, then Philadelphia’s Guion S. Bluford in 1983, and Robert Cenker in 1986.
On Pawelczyk’s mission, astronauts conducted 26 experiments looking at how the nervous system adapts to microgravity conditions. They flew around the Earth 256 times.
While Cardman said she’s not afraid of traveling to space, Pawelczyk said he was.
“But every aspect of what you do in flight is simulated dozens of times, hundreds of times for flight critical stages,” said Pawelczyk, a native of Elma, N.Y. “By the time you’ve gone through training, it’s more like you’re keyed up.”
Cardman wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of space travel in grade school. She wanted to be a novelist.
Then, she said, her high school biology teacher, Emil Davis, turned her on to science. He says she didn’t need much convincing.
“She soaked up everything I could give her, extremely bright,” Davis said. “I opened up my personal biology library and she tore through that.”
He remembers her telling him she wanted to be an astrobiologist. He knew what it was, but asked, “What’s that?”
“An astronaut biologist, she said, straight-up,” he recalled.
As a biology major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cardman saw her dream take root. She conducted research in distant places, such as Antarctica, where she went three times.
“It seemed almost like another planet,” she said. “It’s so remote.”
When applications for the newest astronaut class opened in late 2015, it was the first time Cardman was eligible, so she applied.
Cardman will train for two years. She’ll learn how to walk in space in NASA’s large indoor pool, called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory.
“It has a mock-up of the space station inside it, and you go underwater in a spacesuit,” she said.
She’ll also learn to fly T-38 jets and use a robotic arm to maneuver objects outside a spacecraft. She’ll be trained in Russian, since American astronauts work closely with Russians — currently, the only ride to space is aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. She’ll learn space station systems and how to use tools in zero gravity. There will be a wilderness survival course, leadership exercises, and safety protocols.
After she completes training, she will become eligible for a mission — and her chances of going into space are high. Generally, those who finish the program are assigned to a flight, NASA’s Dean said.
She could be chosen for a shuttle mission to the space station, or for a ride aboard Orion to Mars, the moon, an asteroid, or some other celestial destination.
Cardman said she’s most excited simply about “being the eyes and ears and hands for someone else’s research and science and exploration that has a scope beyond anything I could do as an individual.”
But on a more visceral level, she just wants “the chance to see the curve of the Earth in contrast to the large vacuum of space.”
That’s pretty spectacular, Pawelczyk said. Learning to adjust to a constant state of “free fall” is also extraordinary.
His advice to Cardman, whom he met Thursday for the first time?
“Don’t forget to look out the window.”