Carolina alumna, NASA astronaut Zena Cardman visits campus

Zena Cardman returned to Carolina on her journey to space, sharing stories from her astronaut training program with NASA.

Zena Cardman speaking on stage.
NASA astronaut Zena Cardman at Memorial Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. November 6, 2019. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Astronaut candidate and Carolina alumna Zena Cardman’s research has taken her to a remote laboratory in Antarctica, across the ocean on a 150-foot sailboat and on an analog mission to Hawaii.

Her next stop might just be the moon.

But first, Cardman ’10, ’14 (MS) made a pit stop to Carolina. She took the Memorial Hall stage Wednesday night on the campus where her research journey began a decade ago.

“This is amazing. I have sat in this audience many times, but I have never been on this stage,” Cardman said to an auditorium full of students, faculty and community members. “I’m Zena Cardman. I am a NASA astronaut. I am also a Tar Heel.”

As part of University Research Week, a campus-wide event that celebrates Carolina’s research excellence, Cardman shared stories from her scientific training, including wearing a 300-pound space suit and learning to fly jets as a member of NASA’s 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class.

Cardman’s undergraduate research in remote parts of the world like the Arctic and Antarctica, she said, inspired her to go even further from home — to outer space.

“It wasn’t until college that I realized I wanted to be an astronaut,” she said. “As an undergraduate, I wanted to figure out, ‘What are the wildest places where life can survive and thrive?’”

Her journey eventually led her to NASA, where she is only weeks away from graduating from the astronaut training program. Then she’ll qualify to become part of a space flight for the first time.

“Going to the moon and getting to do science there is, of course, a super exciting goal of mine,” Cardman said. Sharing a photo of the Earth from the moon, Cardman joked, “From this perspective, even Duke and Carolina are the same shade of blue.”

But no matter where she flies, Cardman will be a key member of NASA’s Artemis program. The program will land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. Its ultimate goal is to prepare humans to one day land on Mars.

To inspire others to make their own giant leap, Cardman offered words of wisdom that led her to success.

“Pick somebody who inspires you and mold yourself after them, but be free to take the opportunities that arise,” she said. “Find some mentors — faculty mentors or people who are a lot more senior than you — who can help open doors. And just get started. It’s not too early to start.”