Rocket Woman

Zena Cardman of Williamsburg joins NASA’s 2017 class of astronauts. 

For someone who just beat out more than 18,000 competitors in the race to space, Zena Cardman, 29, is pretty down to earth. “I don’t think I ever smiled that big in my life,” the Pennsylvania State University doctoral student, who grew up in Williamsburg, says of the moment when she learned that she was among the 12 young men and women minted to join NASA’s 2017 class of astronauts.

Says Cardman, “I had my hand over my heart, because it was just absolute, utter overwhelming emotion. I haven’t stopped smiling since.” 

Born in Urbana, Iowa, Cardman moved to Virginia as a child. She graduated from Bruton High School in Williamsburg, where her parents, Helen and Larry Cardman, still reside.  

Initially, Cardman wanted to be a novelist, but a high school teacher’s mentoring put her on a path to a career in the sciences. She earned a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in marine sciences from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Long before she set her mind on space exploration, Cardman took aim at the most remote destination on Earth—Antarctica— where she researched microbial ecology.

At the time of her selection to become an astronaut in June, Cardman was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Penn State. She’s the only graduate student and one of the youngest candidates selected out of the largest pool in the American space agency’s history.

But she’s not the only rocketeer from Virginia. A total of 14 retired NASA astronauts have roots in the state, including Lynchburg native Leland D. Melvin, who flew two missions on the Space Shuttle Atlantis. 

NASA’s current astronaut pool includes two Virginians. Kjell N. Lindgren, 44, was born in Taiwan but resides in Burke in Fairfax County. He has logged a total of 144 days in space and completed two space walks. Mark T. Vande Hei, 50, is a native of Falls Church. He is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station this September.

There is no specific mission yet for Cardman, who in August reported to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, for a two-year training. Upon graduation she will be assigned to a flight, possibly to the International Space Station. Or maybe one day, she hopes, a mission to Mars. 

NASA is set to launch an unmanned resupply mission to the ISS from Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island on Nov. 10. 

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