'She's going to fly'


'She's going to fly'

A trip to space wasn't exactly a childhood dream for newly minted astronaut Zena Cardman, an Urbana native, creative writer and microbiologist who studies "other worldly" life forms for a living.

Her path to NASA involved a top-notch biology teacher, two older brothers who made sure she wasn't a "princess," cave slime and a trip to Antarctica, among other stops.

Cardman, 29, a National Science Foundation research fellow at Penn State, is one of 12 scientists chosen for NASA's 2017 class of astronaut candidates.

She's the only graduate student and one of the youngest selected out of 18,300-plus applicants, the largest pool in the space agency's history.

"It's really, really humbling," Cardman said. "I think we all have a little bit of imposter syndrome. I'm thinking, 'Who did I fool to get here?'"

No need, according to her proud parents.

"She's a very determined young woman who isn't afraid to work hard and deal with the details to do something right, and she has a deep curiosity in things nobody knows about," said her father, Larry Cardman, a nuclear physicist who spent 20 years at the University of Illinois. "I think she's as fine a person for the job as you could find."

Plus, she's "a lot of fun — and somewhat fearless," said her mother, former Champaign librarian Helen-Andrea Cardman.

Zena spent the first five years of her life in a house at 909 W. Charles St. in Champaign's Clark Park, supervised by two teenaged brothers, Michael and Andrew, "who regarded it as their sacred duty to make sure that she didn't become a spoiled little girl," Larry Cardman said.

She clearly inherited her father's love of science, but her mother attributes Zena's sense of humor and "fearless factor" to the boys, who would let her watch "The Simpsons" when they baby-sat and took her out for after-hours sledding at the nearby Champaign Country Club on rare snowy days.

"They'd send her down the hill screaming," she said. "They had a big hand, I think, in who she has become."

Zena attended preschool at Champaign's Early Learning Center at Kirby and Prospect avenues, a "really rich and wonderful environment," her mother said. She spent many happy hours in Champaign's extensive parks and devoured stacks of books from the Champaign library.

In 1993, Larry Cardman took a job at the Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia and the family relocated to Williamsburg.

The Cardmans have been back to Champaign-Urbana for weddings and other occasions, and Zena's "Aunt Liz," Elizabeth Cardman, still lives here.

"I do feel very much like I have roots there," she said.

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Zena remembers watching meteor showers with her mom as a child, and looking up at the stars and "feeling a sense of awe and wonder."

But she always planned to be a novelist — until she met a "phenomenal" high school biology teacher who turned her on to science.

"He was a huge influence on me," she said.

She had an assistantship during high school at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science and did a research project with a professor at the College of William and Mary. She majored in biology at the University of North Carolina, where she also earned a master's in marine science. But she kept a foot in the literary world, minoring in creative writing and editing a poetry journal.

She initially did research in neurobiology and cell biology, but then she read an article by a student who had gone to Antarctica to study tiny organisms that thrive in extreme, "other worldly" environments.

"That's where I caught the bug — literally," she said. "I knew I wanted to see that environment for myself."

At 19, she had no professional contacts, so she "shamelessly emailed everyone I could find online — seriously, 80 or more different scientists."

Most didn't respond, or didn't have space or funding to take her on. But a NASA scientist named Darlene Lim suggested she join NASA's Pavilion Lake Research Project in British Columbia, Canada.

There, researchers were studying tiny life forms called "microbialites" deep under the lake's surface — "they almost look like little tufts of cauliflower or artichokes," Cardman said. The structures they build can be fossilized, which "tells us a lot about what was happening on early Earth, when these were the only life form of life around," she said. "That, in turn, helps us try to understand what to look for on another planet if we were to search for evidence of life."

The scientists were also figuring out logistics for navigating research in unusual environments as preparation for work in space. Divers and single-person submarines collected samples on the lake bottom, as Cardman and other scientists back at "mission control" guided them.

She worked at Pavilion Lake every summer from 2008 to 2015, and last year began work at NASA's Basalt project in Hawaii and Craters of the Moon National Park in Idaho, where the volcanoes and lava terrain are seen as similar to Mars. She's also worked with the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research group in Antarctica and sailed with the Sea Education Association as Assistant Engineer aboard a 135-foot-tall ship.

Her work involves studying tiny organisms that thrive in extreme conditions — around hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean, in the Arctic or in the sediments affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — and can provide clues about life on early Earth and beyond.

She is now pursuing a doctoral degree in geosciences at Penn State, studying interactions between rocks and strange microbes that grow on the walls of damp, dark caves that never see sunlight.

"Cave slime is my Ph.D. work," she said.

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Cardman doesn't recall a single moment when she decided to become an astronaut. Rather, it's "ebbed and flowed in my consciousness" for the past 10 years.

"I think we were getting clues a few years ago when she got her pilot's license," her mom said, recalling how her daughter explained how it would help her qualify for astronaut training.

When she applied to NASA's training program last year she knew the odds might be against her because she is still a graduate student, but "I decided to go for it anyway. I had nothing to lose."

She filled out the application on the NASA website in February 2016, found out the next day that 18,000 other people had applied, and thought, "Oh well, there goes that. I'll try again next time."

Six months later, she was sitting in her living room when an unfamiliar caller rang her phone "completely out of the blue." She almost didn't pick up but then answered and heard a voice say, "This is the astronaut selection office. We'd like you to come for an interview."

"I think I just sat there stupidly grinning for several seconds before I managed to speak," she said. "It felt very surreal."

She went through an interview a week and a half later with 120 other semifinalists — "they don't want you to be overly prepared" — where she got to know the other nine people in her small group.

She made the cut to 50 finalists, went through another interview, and then got the big news on May 25. She had steeled herself for rejection, based on the "absolutely amazing" candidates she had met.

"All of us just had a blast," she said. "I am so lucky. There were so many people who would have done just a phenomenal job," she said. "One of the coolest parts is how different everyone has been. They have such diverse experiences," from medical doctors to pilots to engineers to a scientist from the Mars Rover team. "And me the grad student."

"We all love working in teams with groups of people, whether that was on a submarine or in an Air Force squadron or in the Antarctic," she said.

That's a crucial trait for people who will spend months together on a space mission and depend on each other for survival.

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Five of the 12 astronauts are women, and Cardman is conscious of being a role model, touched by the letters she's already received from students and teachers. One of her friends has a daughter who watched the NASA announcement and said, "Wow, how cool that you can do this as a woman. I want to do this when I grow up."

"It brings tears to my eyes," Cardman said. "And then there are kids, too, who are completely unfazed by it, and that's really cool, too. We're moving into a time where it's not surprising that a woman can be an astronaut."

There's no specific mission lined up yet for this crop of astronauts. They first have to go through two years of training, which will start Aug. 21 at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. It will include everything from learning how to speak Russian to flying F-38 supersonic jets and the protocols for spacewalking. Once they graduate, they'll be assigned to a flight, possibly to the International Space Station or something beyond low-Earth orbit.

In the meantime, Cardman has a wedding to plan. She's engaged to Miles Saunders, a scientist she met on a research ship in the Gulf of Mexico, studying the effects of the BP oil spill. He works on the boat Nautilus, a project of the Ocean Exploration Trust, which takes scientists on ocean research projects and does public outreach.

As for the big question: Is she scared (about space flight, not the wedding)?

"I don't think any of us are scared. There's such an amazing team of scientists and engineers, people who work out all of those problems, people who train us. I think responding to anything that would arise is going to be second nature by the time we actually get there," she said.

Helen Cardman has a slightly different take: "As her mom, I will be scared," she admitted.

"But it's something that she has really dreamed about for a while now. Parents want their kids to fulfill their dreams and be happy. So I'm really happy for her.

"My mother would say, when I was a young mother, 'You have to let your children fly, you can't hold them too tight.' Now I'm thinking, 'Mom, here she is, she's going to fly!'"

3 things to know about soon-to-be astronaut Zena Cardman

  1. Rich McDonald, the longtime children’s librarian at the Champaign Public Library, once gave 2-year-old Zena a puppet for her family’s trip to Virginia when her father took a sabbatical there. “That puppet gave a play-by-play description for the 800 miles we drove from Illinois east,” said mom Helen-Andrea Cardman. “Everything she saw out the window, the puppet told us about. She had an early facility with words.”
  2. Champaign’s famed “Andy’s Shoes” store came to the rescue whenever Zena needed fancy shoes, her mom said. She read a book about red shoes, and thereafter “every time she needed little girl dressy shoes they’d have to be red, and we’d go down to Andy’s. But they stopped making them in her size around age 5 and she had to get black patent leather. She was distraught.”
  3. Cardman loves hiking and canoeing and, lately, raising chickens in her backyard. Meatball, an escape artist, and Waffles are “really really fun,” she said. “I didn’t expect it. You think of chickens as these little dumb dinosaurs, but they have really strong personalities.”

Space invaders

Champaign native Zena Cardman joins an illustrious list of UI grads and local natives who’ve either traveled to space or are in line to some year soon. (by Jeff D'Alessio)

UI Class of ’81

After 15 years, four shuttle missions and 51 days in space, the retired U.S. Navy captain left NASA for ASRC Federal Space and Defense in Maryland. Among the Lincoln native’s claims to fame: “Scooter,” as he’s known, was aboard Atlantis in 2009 for the fifth and final mission servicing the Hubble Telescope.

➜ Did you know? Altman’s one acting credit was a memorable one — as a young pilot, he made $23 a day playing a stunt double in “Top Gun.” (That’s his middle finger saluting a pilot in the Russian plane while flying upside down).

UI Class of ’82

If it flies, odds are the Oak Park native has been in it. Before leaving NASA in 2013, Archambault — now a Colorado-based systems engineer and flight test pilot for the Sierra Nevada Corp. — logged 5,000-plus flight hours in 30-plus aircraft. That includes everything from space shuttles (Atlantis, Discovery) to Air Force stealth fighters (22 combat missions during the Gulf War, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other honors).

➜ Did you know? Among the precious few possessions he opted to take on his 5.8 million-mile Atlantis adventure: an Illini hockey jersey, in honor of the club team he played for.

UI Class of ’70

On Aug. 30, 1983, the Navy veteran became the first of six UI astronaut alums to take off from Kennedy Space Center, in Challenger — No. 8 of 135 in the shuttle program’s history. Fifteen months later, he celebrated his 36th birthday by blasting off in Discovery. Gardner, who died at age 65 in 2014, remained a part of the space program long after his astronaut career, serving as deputy director for space control at Peterson Air Force Base.

➜ Did you know? In October 1986, Gardner was due to board Discovery for a third shuttle mission. But it was canceled following the Challenger disaster in January of that year.

UI Class of ’91

From walk-on defensive back to Illini football captain, from 12 years of NASA rejection letters to being on board for a 166-day round trip to the International Space Station, Hopkins’ story is the stuff of legends. He shared it with the UI’s graduating class of 2014, just two months after returning from the ride of his life — orbiting Earth 2,656 times in the Soyuz TMA-10M spacecraft.

➜ Did you know? John Mackovic gets some of the credit for Hopkins’ success in space. “The workout regimen and really, my whole experience there at Illinois helped me get through the time in the microgravity environment,” he told The News-Gazette in 2014.

UI instructor, lecturer

The UI’s Ontario-born former volunteer head rowing coach is still in the running for two astronaut slots after surviving the Canadian Space Agency’s April cut from 32 to 17. Kroeker, an Urbana resident, has deep Illini ties: He earned his master’s and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering here and has been an instructor or adjunct lecturer since 2013.

➜ Did you know? Kroeker’s greatest achievement? Building the UI’s club rowing team, he told his native country’s space site: “When I started, the equipment was always on the verge of falling apart, the number of athletes was small, and we struggled to be competitive. When I was done, the club had brand-new boats, the team had quadrupled in size, and we had won two national gold medals.”

Born in Champaign

Most of his childhood was spent in Texas but his birth certificate was issued on Nov. 16, 1950, in Champaign County while his dad was serving at Rantoul’s Chanute Air Force Base. An Air Force veteran himself who now makes a living as the director of restricted programs at Northrop Grumman, Meade’s space resume includes three shuttle missions between 1990 and 1994.

➜ Did you know? He made NASA lore while on shuttle Discovery in 1994, performing the first untethered spacewalk in a decade. Just him and a $7 million jetpack, 150 miles above Earth, for nearly seven hours.

UI Class of ’69

The Canton-born Air Force colonel was a mission specialist on his first shuttle flight, the pilot on his second and the commander on his final two. After a 30-plus-year career with NASA — 30 days, 1 hour and 34 minutes of which he spent in space — Nagel joined the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at the University of Missouri in 2011.

➜ Did you know? A month before he succumbed to cancer in August 2014, he still dreamed big. Asked by The News-Gazette where he’d have loved to go, Nagel picked Jupiter, to “see the Galilean moons such as Io, which has the towering volcanoes. Of course, you could not land and the intense radiation field around Jupiter makes this unsafe for humans unless we come up with a solution.”

UI Class of ’73

One of 14 Illinois-born astronauts — and the only one from the area — the 1968 Danville High grad put in 8,900 hours in Naval and NASA aircraft. That includes seven spacewalks and four shuttle trips — with the first (in 1994) and last (2006) both aboard Atlantis. Since 2008, the former Illini swim team star has served as a senior instructor in the University of Colorado’s Aerospace Engineering Science Department.

➜ Did you know? Tanner’s father, longtime Danville physician L.W. Tanner, taught his Eagle Scout son how to fly at the Vermilion County Airport. He got his pilot’s license one day before joining the Navy at age 23.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Cardman had applied for the NASA program in 2012.