No matter what happens in Zena Cardman’s career with NASA, let it be known that she first touched Mars in 2016. That’s when her fiancé, Miles Saunders, nervously pulled a ring box out of his pocket on the Skyride at Busch Gardens Williamsburg to pop the question.

Inside the box was a modest engagement ring passed down from his grandmother—and a quarter-sized chunk of a Martian meteorite, which Saunders had researched for years and purchased for about as much as one might drop on a diamond. “I said, ‘Will you marry me?’ And then I got really giddy and said, ‘I got you this ugly rock!’” Saunders ’07 EMS says of presenting the shergottite (with a full fusion crust) to his bride-to-be. But 10 grams of the red planet was anything but ugly to Cardman.

closeup of meteorite, photo by Steve Boyle“A lot of my research is with an eye for what kind of life might be possible on Mars, or whether Mars was habitable sometime in its past,” says Cardman, a doctoral student in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. “I could never have dreamed up that [proposal], but in hindsight it was perfect.”

Saunders, a State College native whose former job as a research technologist at the university is partly what pulled Cardman to Penn State in 2014, says Cardman’s long-held fascination with Mars made the unconventional gesture seem appropriate.

“She’s the most amazing woman I’ve ever met,” he says. “I had to give her something out of this world.”


Cardman and her fiance Saunders sitting on a couch together, photo by Steve Boyle
TO MARS AND BACK: Four days after agreeing to marry Miles Saunders, Cardman learned she was one of 50 finalists for NASA's 2017 astronaut candidate class. In May, she became one of 12 to make the final cut. Steve Boyle.


Four days after she said “yes,” Cardman would hear that she was among 50 finalists for NASA’s 2017 astronaut candidate class—firmly in the running to someday head out of this world herself. The space agency received a record 18,300 applications from its open call in early 2016. In May, they narrowed it down to the final 12—one of whom is a Penn Stater with a piece of Mars already in hand.

“I was barely qualified [to apply], but decided to go for it,” says the 29-year-old. Her five-page résumé tells a different story: The daughter of a nuclear physicist and a librarian, Zena—named after her maternal grandmother, Zenobia—spent her formative years dreaming of becoming a novelist and adventuring outdoors near the family’s Virginia home. And then a high school biology teacher opened her eyes to the wonders of science.

“I loved exploring,” she says. “And when I went down the path of biology, I got to combine that exploration with some kind of intellectual exploration as well, getting to ask and answer questions about the natural world.”

At the University of North Carolina, Cardman earned a biology degree, minored in marine sciences, creative writing, and chemistry, and found time for an honors thesis in poetry. But getting out of the classroom and into remote locales launched her trajectory toward Houston.

“As soon as I got to college and realized science was not just in the laboratory but was also this field work, I dove right in,” she says. The explorer in her yearned to see Antarctica: In 2008, she sent 80 emails to researchers everywhere asking for a spot with a field team headed to the icy continent. That effort yielded a fateful Plan B when Darlene Lim, a contract research scientist at NASA, responded to Cardman’s Antarctica request with an invitation to British Columbia instead.

There, Lim was heading up the Pavilion Lake Research Project, a joint venture between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to study microbialites in the lake. “They were using the lake as a chance to figure out the infrastructure for doing science on another planet,” Cardman says. “Not only what kind of science to do, but how to get this back-room team of experts—who can’t necessarily be on the planet—to communicate with the astronauts about what types of samples they want, what to select when, what kind of radio communications do we need, even down to where to put a camera on a space suit.”


Cardman in NASA space suit with helmet in front of plane, photo courtesy NASA
READY FOR LIFTOFF: Cardman and her fellow astronaut candidates were scheduled to begin their two-year training program in August. Courtesy NASA.


Cardman thrived in the team environment, quietly marveling at the implications of what those around her were ultimately preparing for. “Having the opportunity to meet astronauts and see that maybe this isn’t just a fantasy, this is a career that real humans have, that really stuck with me through college,” she says.

Lim was equally impressed with the teenager’s ambition and willingness to do everything asked of her. The two formed a bond that would become like family, as Lim invited Cardman back to Pavilion Lake on a number of additional expeditions.

After getting her first, virtual taste of “space,” Cardman explored the far reaches of Earth in her quest to experience similar otherworldly environments. A connection made in British Columbia took her to Axel Heiberg Island in the Arctic to study, among other things, springs where water flows year-round, even when it’s 40 below zero. By looking at the springs, scientists hope to understand how water could flow as a liquid on Mars.

Next, she set sail for six weeks aboard a 135-foot tall ship, learning oceanography, nautical science, and celestial navigation through a study abroad program, all the while getting comfortable with the idea of living in cramped quarters with no access to the world back home. Eventually, Cardman’s Antarctica dreams came true as well: She’s been there three times to do field work, the longest a four-month stint at Palmer Station, the only U.S. research station located north of the Antarctic Circle.

“It’s almost like summer camp but for grown-ups—and cold,” she says, describing off-hours spent skiing and kayaking, and a creatively welded hot tub that overlooks a glacier. There’s work six days a week, she says, but it doesn’t really feel like work. “There’s a lot of manual labor, and the harsh environment, but you’re living and working with your friends. I loved it.”


Cardman sitting in the grass with several of her chickens, photo by Steve Boyle
ECLECTIC INTERESTS: Raising chickens is just one of Cardman's many hobbies. Steve Boyle.


In 2012, shortly after returning from her last assignment in Antarctica, Cardman boarded a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico to spend two weeks studying mud microbes as part of the fallout from the BP oil spill of 2010. Also on board was Saunders, whose Penn State lab happened to share the same grant as Cardman’s UNC grad school adviser. “She held the door open for me one day, I smiled, and we introduced ourselves,” says Saunders, who was almost instantly smitten. “It just all happened from there.”

Shortly after their respective fieldwork was finished, Saunders was getting ready to lead his friends on an annual overnight canoe trip down the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Cardman, always game for an adventure, showed up to join the fun. “She took a leap and drove up from North Carolina to float down the river with me,” he says. “I guess technically that was our first date.”

The two began a long-distance relationship while Cardman finished her master’s degree in marine sciences at UNC. When it was time to select a school for her Ph.D., Penn State was the obvious choice—and not just because her boyfriend worked there.

“I came here for a really good geosciences department,” she says. “I wanted to do microbiology research, but approaching it from a slightly different angle to broaden my skill set. And I liked this school a lot. I felt at home here.”

Saunders began introducing her to the trails and tributaries around Centre County, while quietly asking around at work about the Martian rock market. He had noticed that her work was all about Mars. Not the moon, not Earth. “Just Mars,” he says.

Indeed, Cardman enrolled in Penn State’s geosciences department to gain experience in geomicrobiology for a very specific purpose. “On a very basic scientific level, a lot of my research is applicable to knowing what to look for, knowing where to look, on a planet like Mars,” she says. “Now, I can better identify where in the rock record we should look, what little micro-environments are best for preserving organics, or what type of environment might have had a river delta at one point.”

While at Penn State, she’s been researching “cave slime”—identifying microorganisms found in mud taken from a cave in the Dominican Republic. “The coolest thing to me is that every time you sequence a little fistful of mud, you find something that we have no idea what it does, what its role in the environment is,” she says. “By cell counts, by biomasses, it’s the most abundant life on Earth, probably in the universe, even though we can’t see it. It’s a whole biosphere below us and all around us and in our guts. It’s pretty wild.”

While her current research is based on frozen mud samples taken from a cave she’s never been to, she has spent some time exploring local caves with the Nittany Grotto Caving Club, just for fun. She’s also gotten into backpacking, rock climbing, and glider flying, the latter of which she took up as an inexpensive way to gain hours in her quest for her pilot’s license—another item on her checklist toward attaining her NASA dream. “I really, really like glider flying,” she says, “especially when you’re in the same thermal as a bald eagle.”

And she has continued to hone her field experience with Lim, who picked her to be logistics coordinator for NASA’s BASALT (Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains) research program. In that role, Cardman leads teams of field scientists through simulated Mars missions across volcanic terrains in Hawaii and Idaho. “I am very careful who I give that job to,” Lim says. “It’s got to be somebody who obviously is fit and capable in the field, and can tie the meanest knot you know, but also has a real situational awareness about them and a real common sense calmness about them. And that’s Zena.”

She may have had Lim’s vote of confidence, but Cardman didn’t believe she was qualified enough yet to join NASA’s elite astronaut ranks. After turning in her application—a simple résumé upload, she says—in February 2016, she heard nothing until late August of that year, when she was dumbfounded to receive a phone call congratulating her on being among 120 semifinalists. After a whirlwind three days of group interviews and a six-hour psychological assessment in Houston, she settled back into her routine in State College for another eight months of waiting. Then in April, she and 49 other finalists were brought back to Houston in groups of 10 for one more round of interviews.

When she got word in late May that she’d made the cut, Cardman realized that aside from a few part-time gigs in college folding shirts at a J.Crew or scooping ice cream, her first real full-time job would be that of an astronaut. “I know what I’m going to be when I grow up now,” she quips. “I’m starting to think come Thanksgiving they’re not going to let me back at the kids’ table. I have a fiancé and a job and a mortgage. I almost feel like a grown-up.”


Cardman standing in front of a map of the universe, photo by Steve Boyle
SOLID CREDENTIALS: An experienced field scientist, Cardman has the ideal skills for potential Mars research. Steve Boyle.


(Cardman would become the fifth Penn Stater to travel to space, joining Paul Weitz ’54 Eng, Guion Bluford ’64 Eng, Robert Cenker ’70 Eng, and associate professor of kinesiology James Pawelczyk ’85 MS IDF. For more on Penn Staters in space, go to

Lim was nearly as delighted as the young woman she’s mentored. “I look at her and think, ‘Damn, that’s the perfect person to send up to low Earth orbit and then to deep space and hopefully onto Mars. It gets me extremely excited to know that Zena and others in her cohort are capable of pushing that boundary, and they’re going to bring a lot of scientific dreams to bear.”

NASA has sent many scientists up in space, but the prospect of sending an experienced field scientist like Cardman, Lim says, makes a world of difference. “One of the things we don’t explicitly train for, but we intrinsically train for, is to be a very good observational scientist. You don’t take a course on that, but you get nurtured in that way—how to read an outcrop, how to understand to pick up the rock to your left versus your right, because that one might yield better results, all that contextual understanding,” Lim says. “You can’t teach that in a book. But you can nurture that through experience over time.”

Cardman understands the honor of representing her colleagues in the science community. “I love the projects that I do here, but now I’ll get to be someone’s eyes and ears and hands and lab notebook for this huge project that’s beyond the scope of anything that I could do on my own,” she says.


needlepoint of NASA logo, photo by Steve Boyle


Her parents, her older brother Mike, and his family traveled to Houston for the announcement in June. Mike says touring the space center and seeing his kid sister in that blue jumpsuit for the first time was unforgettable. “We’re overjoyed for her,” says Mike Cardman, whose 7-year-old daughter put her aunt’s NASA nametag on her for the first time. “My daughter’s going to know that the sky’s the limit—literally. She’s got a great inspiration in her aunt.”

Saunders, who works as a navigator for the oceanic exploration project Nautilus Live, was at sea and unable to attend the festivities. But he talked the ship’s IT guy into letting him stream the announcement. Says Saunders: “It’s the first time I’ve cried like that in awhile.”

Jennifer Macalady, Cardman’s Penn State adviser and an associate professor of geosciences, says Cardman’s ambition, intelligence, and determination made the seemingly impossible—to be picked from more than 18,000 applicants—appear easy. “It’s an astounding thing to be chosen. On the other hand, knowing Zena,” Macalady says. “I consider it to be completely within her powers.”

Cardman was set to report for duty Aug. 21, beginning two years of training that includes space-walk training, group workouts, and an intense swim test in full flight gear. Deep space is still some time away for her. But it’s far closer than most will ever get. “It still feels surreal even now. And I think even when our training starts, even flying these jets and learning Russian and learning space-walking techniques, it just doesn’t feel real until you actually leave the planet,” she says. “I just really look forward to the moment of lifting off for the first time.” 


Natural Born Explorer

Zena Cardman's travels have taken her all over the globe–and she never goes without her camera. For more of her photos, check out the slideshow below and visit