Earth, she’s seen — from top to bottom. Now Zena Cardman ’10 wants to show NASA what a microbiologist brings to a place like Mars.
In the Guaymas Basin in the center of the Gulf of California in the northwest corner of Mexico — down 2,000 meters, where temperatures in the sediment can reach about the boiling point of water — live the microbes that Zena Cardman ’10 wanted so badly to know all about.
Others went and got them for her and brought them back to Chapel Hill for her to study. Then those microbes became the focus of her 2014 master’s thesis. But Cardman never got to go, maybe because she was so busy looking at tiny things everywhere else on the planet. Antarctica. The Arctic. Canada. Italy. The Gulf of Mexico. Virginia. Then there was the time in Hawaii when she was pretending to be on Mars.
She had written in her Carolina application essay that she wanted to be an astronaut, then deleted it when she couldn’t figure out how to explain why. As she studied science, the notion morphed from fantasy to goal. Last year, along with more than 18,000 other people, she filled out NASA’s application form.
“That’s all the application is — there’s no essay to wax poetic about why you want to travel to space,” Cardman said. “You send your resume to a government website, and then you just wait.”
The call the finalists get came in December: She was one of the top 0.3 percent of the class. In May, Houston called again: She was an astronaut, one of 12 told to report for training in August.
The 29-year-old microbiologist was having breakfast tacos with friends; they were about halfway through Apollo 13. “I was really, really glad to have a few close friends spend that morning with me, otherwise I would’ve been a mess. Honored and overjoyed doesn’t even begin to explain it.”
Earth might not have to contain her ambitions to find tiny creatures.
Cardman waited nine months between filling out the application and the phone call inviting her to the first interview. Less than two weeks later, she found herself at the Johnson Space Center. On her first morning there, she walked down a hallway lined with photos from every era of the space program, from Apollo 1 astronauts practicing egress training in a swimming pool to astronaut Scott Kelly floating in the cupola of the International Space Station.
“I get shivers every time I walk down that hallway,” she said. “The fact that they even want to consider me for this kind of position is amazing.”
A decade earlier, she had walked into Venable Hall, home to UNC’s marine science department. She’d fallen in love with biology in high school, but it wasn’t until she came to Carolina that she discovered the wonders — and possibilities — of microbiology.
As a first-year student, she immersed herself in science and discovery. She found particular inspiration in an article written by another undergraduate, Kate Harris ’05. “She was four years ahead of me and had also worked in marine sciences and done research in Antarctica. I just thought that was so cool.” (Harris, too, had Mars on her to-do list.)
Cardman found herself in the lab of marine science Professor Andreas Teske as an undergraduate. She returned there for her master’s after majoring in biology and minoring in creative writing and marine science. Her mentors recalled the ways artistic and communication skills enhanced her science. (She received honors in poetry.)
Teske remembers the time Cardman and a colleague built a cardboard mockup of the famous Navy submersible Alvin — which was used to explore the Guaymas Basin — and wowed audiences at the N.C. Museum of Natural History. “It was wonderfully imaginative,” Teske said. “She didn’t just take a research project somebody put under her nose. She built her own path.”
When Cardman thinks something is cool, she goes after it full throttle. In her freshman year, she started thinking it would be cool to go south — all the way south. Two years later, she did.
After picking up cold-weather survival gear from a warehouse in Punta Arenas, Chile, Cardman and her colleagues boarded a small icebreaker bound for Antarctica, where they spent five weeks collecting data for the Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research Network.
The voyage from the southern tip of Chile to the Antarctic Peninsula takes about four days, covering 600 miles of turbulent water where the Antarctic Circumpolar Current gets pinched between two continents. Widely considered one of the roughest sea crossings on the planet, the Drake Passage can be treacherous. It also is strikingly bleak.
“Crossing the Drake Passage felt more remote than anywhere we went in Antarctica. It made me think of all of the early explorers who took weeks to make that journey and had no idea what to expect.”
When Cardman finally laid her eyes on the southernmost continent, it didn’t look like land. “It looked like clouds on the horizon, like a white haze. It’s such a cool feeling — to cross an ocean and see land that you’ve never seen before, land that you’ve never stepped foot on.”
Standing at the edge of the world. Stepping into unexplored territory. These are the types of experiences astronauts specialize in, and Cardman believes her research experience (she’s now been on three expeditions to Antarctica) has a strong correlation to space travel.
“You’re in a remote place with a limited number of people, and you’re relying on this ship as your home and your life support.”
Being a team player is a big part of that dynamic. “You are there to do science. But you have to be just as willing to fix the toilet, clean up, cook and be part of the daily life to keep your lifeboat running.”
Seven years later and more than 7,000 miles from Antarctica, Cardman displayed leadership skills characteristic of the best field scientists. She was in Hawaii, but she was pretending to be on Mars.
As part of the Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains (BASALT) research project, Cardman and her colleagues carried out a simulation for a mission to Mars in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Two people played the roles of astronauts while Cardman and a group of volunteers ran support. This is how she described it:
The astronaut pauses to set down a marker next to a jagged black rock; radios to a team member back inside the “Mars habitat,” who in turn hails the remote team on Earth to ask whether this should be a priority sample; and then waits. Fifteen minutes later, the team receives the message — it takes a while for a sound bite to travel from Mars to the scientists “on Earth” (in a building a few miles away).
When humans actually travel to Mars, the reduced gravity will ease the heavy load of tools — they’ll be able to carry more gear, and some of their instruments might be run by robotic rovers.
But to run this drill on Earth, they need some help from volunteers. Cardman, the field support team lead, is in charge of organizing them.
“When I’m talking to people back ‘on Earth,’ it means something isn’t working or the weather’s going south.”
Going to Mars appeals to Cardman because she is a scientist. “Doing geology on another planet would be amazing. But I never really thought about the requirements about how to direct those scientific investigations. There are logistical roles people have to play — how do you make sure you’re getting good data and good samples when the scientific experts are remote?”
An instrument needs recalibration. An antenna needs to be adjusted. Something simple but essential — like the meter stick used for scale — was left behind and needs to be jury-rigged. Cardman helps rectify those issues — and she does it with positive attitude.
“That’s one of the best things about field work. It’s a reminder that we’re all human and we’re bound to make some mistakes. It’s a good atmosphere for learning, and it keeps you humble. You just have to learn from those mistakes and improvise solutions.”
Unexpected problems always pop up in the field. “Anyone who has done field work will tell you the same thing. And when you’re going to another planet, it’s that much more important to have all of those things figured out ahead of time.”
Cardman studied microorganisms to better understand life on early Earth. Billions of years ago, before plants or animals, before the rise of oxygen, the only Earthlings were single-celled bacteria and archaea. “When we find really ancient metabolisms, they can tell us a lot about what might have been going on in early Earth.” In 2008, with support from a Burch Fellowship, Cardman spent her summer with the Pavilion Lake Research Project in British Columbia. She explored modern stromatolites, living versions of our earliest fossil evidence for life on Earth.
NASA and the Canadian Space Agency also used Pavilion Lake as an “analog” site: Cardman’s first exposure to the logistics of scientific sampling under the constraints of a space mission. But these space exploration analogs extend beyond formal projects like Pavilion Lake and BASALT. “Anytime you’re in a remote place or harsh environment with a small group, you can learn something about what science on Mars might be like.”
Cardman has hunted down microbes all over the world. It makes sense that she would be adept at doing the same thing on other planets.
Unraveling the unique geochemistry of microbes in extreme environments comes in handy as scientists search for life elsewhere in the universe — it’s all about knowing what to look for. “And how to know whether there was once life in that environment or not.”
Cardman’s master’s thesis is titled, simply, “Active Prokaryotic Communities Along a Thermally-Structured, Mat-Covered, Geochemically Variable Transect In Guaymas Basin Sediments.”
She studied what Teske called the “outlandish” microbes found in the basin — specifically, how they change the deeper they are in the sediment, how they adapt to the environment.
Potential astronauts are an impressive group from all kinds of backgrounds. A test pilot from the Air Force. An emergency room doctor. A former NFL player.
“I’m just a grad student!” Cardman said earlier this year. “In my microbiology world, I would never find myself talking to someone who flies F-22s for a living, but here we are with the same goal.”
She’s been studying astrobiology for a while now, and where she really wants to go is up. During an intensive two years of initial training, Cardman will study spacecraft systems and the Russian language and learn to fly T-38 jets.
“She is the first astronaut with a thorough education in microbiology,” Teske said. “This is an uncommon education for an astronaut.” But in an environment such as Mars, he believes that “you need this kind of knowledge. If you see a weird organism that’s never been seen before — she would know what to look for. In a way, she’s the fully formed astrobiologist.”
Teske also hopes Cardman will get a break at some point; she was working on her doctorate in geoscience at Penn State in 2016, the last time the Alvin went down into the Guaymas Basin, and the folks there wouldn’t turn her loose.
“I still owe her a Guaymas cruise.”
Mary Lide Parker ’11 is a writer, photographer and video producer at UNC whose work mainly appears in Endeavors, Carolina’s online research magazine.
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• Zena Cardman’s NASA biography.
• Three other Carolina alumni also have been astronauts:
In 1967, when Dr. William Edgar Thornton ’52 signed on as the first astronaut from North Carolina, Apollo 11 had not yet landed on the moon. But Thornton was eager to explore the final frontier. “I am one of those individuals that is overloaded with the desire to go new places and see new things,” he said. “I have more curiosity than common sense.” As a medical student at UNC — he received his degree in 1963 — Thornton worked on the first anesthesia monitoring and developed the electrocardiac computer or automated EKG. By the time he stepped onto the space shuttle Challenger in August 1983 (at 54, the oldest astronaut at the time), he had made his mark with the invention of myriad monitoring devices and a gizmo for exercising in zero gravity referred to as “Thornton’s Revenge” for its demands on the body. For more, see the March/April 2012 Carolina Alumni Review.
In 1969, Jerry Linenger was a teenager lying on a sand dune on the shoreline of Lake Huron, staring up at the moon. On a nearby picnic table sat a black-and-white TV powered by a portable generator. As news reports recounted Neil Armstrong’s dramatic first steps more than 200,000 miles above the Earth, Linenger looked into space and said, “I want to do that someday.” Two decades later, after earning two degrees from Carolina — a master’s in public health in 1989 and his doctorate in 1990 — he became an astronaut. His missions included an almost five-month stay aboard the Russian space station Mir. For more, see “The Man in the Mir” in the May/June 1998 Carolina Alumni Review.
Capt. Charles E. Brady Jr. ’73, a native of North Carolina, studied premed at Carolina, completing the required premed courses in three years with a 4.0 grade point average and election to Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his medical degree from Duke University in 1975. In his initial career path of sports medicine, Brady worked at Iowa State University, then returned to UNC, working for three years under Dr. Joe DeWalt ’50. From UNC, Brady left for a sports medicine position at East Carolina University. Then, in 1986, he signed on as a Navy surgeon. In 1988, he was tapped for the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. Two years later, he was selected by NASA to train as an astronaut and qualified as a mission specialist on shuttle flights, including on Columbia in 1996, at the time the longest space shuttle mission ever — a 16-day mission that orbited the Earth 271 times, covering 7 million miles in 405 hours. It was billed as a science mission, to conduct medical and physical experiments in preparation for work aboard the future space station. After his return, he said: “When you are hurtling around the Earth, you feel so connected. If you can find the button to push to keep on going, you would push it.” Brady died in July 2006 at age 54. For more, see Brady’s official NASA biography.