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A SpaceX engineer and marine biologist explain how they got picked to be NASA astronauts

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Robb Kulin and Zena Cardman had very unique journeys to the space agency

NASA’s 2017 astronaut candidates.
Photo: NASA

This week, NASA announced its newest class of astronauts: 12 extremely qualified individuals who will train for the next two years to fly to space. While many of these new hires have a few shared traits — such as degrees in STEM or flight experience — they all have extremely diverse interests and backgrounds. The new group includes former military personnel, doctors, marine biologists, engineers, and a geologist who worked on the Mars Curiosity rover.

We spoke with two of NASA’s newest astronaut candidates, Robb Kulin and Zena Cardman, who perfectly illustrate that there is no normal path for becoming an astronaut. Kulin has spent most of his career at SpaceX, working on the Falcon 9 rocket and making sure the company’s missions are safe and reliable. Cardman has primarily been focused on studying ecosystems of lakes and oceans and learning how to do science on other worlds.

Though the two do have something fairly unique in common: they’ve both spent time in Antarctica. And they say that living there was a good way to train for leaving the planet.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

Robb Kulin

Image: NASA

You grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. What was it like living so far up north and did it contribute in any way to wanting to go to space?

Growing up in Alaska is absolutely incredible. I hate to say this being in Texas right now, but there’s honestly no other place in the world I’d rather live more than Alaska. Some of the great parts about it are the adventurous people that you find yourself surrounded by. One of my good friends growing up, she was the youngest person for quite a while to climb Denali, which kind of gives you a flavor for the spirit of people that you’re with. A lot of people spend time flying their own planes around the state, going on adventurous trips. And I think that whole spirit for adventure and exploration is kind of what got me interested in space in the first place.

You’re no stranger to living in cold environments, since you’ve also spent time as an ice driller in Antarctica. How was that experience?

Antarctica is, I’d say, the most off-planet experience you can probably have on the planet. I was in two different places down there, once working deep in the interior in a place called the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And it’s like being out on the ocean there. It’s flat, white, no topology… and it’s mind blowing.

And the other region that I was in is a place called the Taylor Glacier [which is on a dry valley]. That area is incredible, because as you can imagine from the name, dry valleys means that there’s not a lot of precipitation. So what you get is a lot of old snow and old ice and a lot of bare rock. The rocks down there bring about a whole different picture than what you think about when you’re in mountains elsewhere. It’s phenomenal and gorgeous; it’s just like being on a different planet in some ways.

At what point did you start getting interested in space?

Maybe you could say I’m not very smart, because what gave me the space bug was actually doing a project on the Columbia disaster back in undergrad — looking at the approach of the investigation and some of the findings there. And I guess I’d never really thought much about space until that point. That kind of let me bridge out and think more about space and NASA in general. I wasn’t attracted by the awfulness there, of course, but it was an introduction in general to start looking in that direction.

And that eventually led you to working at SpaceX. When did you first get involved with the company?

My first introduction to SpaceX, I kind of rolled my eyes because I’d seen their first couple of failures and I wasn’t imaginative enough to understand what they were really trying to achieve. When I really got turned onto SpaceX was when I went out for a Shuttle launch and happened to go with a friend of a friend that worked there. And he got us a tour of SLC-40 [one of SpaceX’s launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Florida], and they’d just done a raising of a model Falcon 9; they called it Capricorn 1. And they were pretty amped on that.

It was these guys trying to do some pretty ambitious, but also low-cost, engineering just to get this company going. And the energy they had was incredible, as well as the responsibility and the ability for an engineer to get their hands dirty. I quickly turned around from thinking they were a little silly to being really impressed and deciding I wanted to apply and try to work there as soon as I finished grad school.

What did you work on at SpaceX?

The majority of my time — it’s really been spread out while I’ve been there — I’ve done some design and analysis of various components on the first stage of Falcon 9. Some of those components, even though they started flying back on flight six, a few of them actually still fly.

And then in the last year and a half, I’ve been running what’s called the launch chief engineering group, which is part of flight reliability. And our job has really been to make sure we have safe and reliable flight, and bring all the teams together to have a successful mission. Then in the unfortunate event that we have an anomaly like we had last fall, our team leads that investigation.

How long have you been applying to be an astronaut and what was the process like?

So this is the third time I’ve applied. The first time I knew I was probably borderline not qualified, but I wanted to give it a shot to see how it goes. The second time I did actually get invited in and made it to the final 50. And then of course, this time, I made it through.

But it’s a long process. They really have to do their best to whittle it down step by step. It really starts becoming notable when you get invited in for the first interview, which I think was 120 people for both rounds I made it through. And then if you’re lucky, after about a three-day process of some medical, some interviews, psych tests, etc., you get invited for the second round. And the second round is more of a week-long process, with a lot more poking and prodding. [They’re] really trying to make sure that you’re healthy enough medically to be qualified. One of the big objectives that the team is going for here at NASA is they’re trying to see, “Hey if I got stuck with this guy on Space Station, is that actually something I’d enjoy?”

How was it breaking the news to SpaceX?

It’s been a really amazingly supportive response, which I think is awesome. Even [CEO] Elon [Musk] offered his congratulations, which was great. But I think there’s also been some sadness to see that I’ll be leaving later this summer. To feel valued that way by the team really makes me feel pretty awesome.

Eventually, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will start taking astronauts to the ISS. I’m assuming you’d like to ride in that one?

You know, I do have to admit I would love to ride on a Falcon 9 and a Dragon. But I’d also be happy to ride in anything that I’d be given the opportunity to fly in. But yeah, it’d be pretty cool, especially if I knew that some of my components were still on Falcon 9, to be on top.

Zena Cardman

Image: NASA

You are obviously a big ocean buff. Where did you get your love of studying marine ecology?

I’m a microbiologist by training. I first got into biology as a high school student. I had a phenomenal teacher in high school, and he encouraged me to pursue research outside the classroom. Then in college, I got connected with several field projects from British Columbia to Antarctica. A lot of these projects were looking at microorganisms, how they interact with their environment, but usually in the context of the ocean or lakes. So eventually I found a home in marine sciences.

It seems like going to Antarctica is a theme in this astronaut class. Robb Kulin also spent time there and said it was almost like being off the planet. What was the experience like for you?

It was a blast. A lot of these projects, what makes them so special, is really the people who go there. And everyone I’ve met in Antarctica shares this similar passion for doing research but also exploring and being on the frontiers and being outside. And it’s a good group of people who like to work in teams. And I think even more so than, you know, this extreme weather or being at the ends of the Earth, there may be more applications in just the ability to work in a team in a remote environment with the space program.

There’s a similar lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, too.

And you’ve already had some experience with NASA analog missions — projects done on Earth that could be applied to space. How did you get involved?

I actually got involved by accident really. I was trying to get to Antarctica, so I had emailed all kinds of different scientists, most of whom didn’t even respond. A lot of them said, “No we don’t have space or the resources.” One woman, named Darlene Lim at NASA Ames, wrote back. She said, “I’m not going to Antarctica, but we have this project in Canada. You should come along.”

And that wound up being a project called Pavilion Lake. It’s in British Columbia, and through that project I got to do really interesting science from a microbiology perspective but then also apply that science to figuring out how to do science on another planet. And I also got to work with people at universities all over the world. Scientists from the Canadian Space Agency and actually both Canadian and US NASA astronauts. That was really my first entry into the NASA family.

So when did you turn your eye from the oceans to space?

I can’t ever say I’ve turned my eyes away from the ocean. That’s still very much a part of my research and who I am. But it was sometime during college that I really realized I had accumulated this set of applicable skills. Not only the science, but getting to work in remote places, learning to fix things, working in these small groups, and how I could use that in the space program.

When did you start applying to become an astronaut?

This application cycle was the first time I actually even qualified. So for the last class, I knew I wanted to do that someday, but I was barely out of college, didn’t yet meet the bare minimum requirements. So when I heard the announcement this time, I was gung ho from the get go.

So the application is really just a resume. You submit a resume to a government website and then there’s a lot of waiting until you get that phone call out of the blue to come to Houston for an interview.

That phone call was so surreal. I almost didn’t pick up, because I didn’t recognize the number. I wasn’t expecting it. And I think there were several moment of stunned silence before I finally busted out smiling and almost laughing and said, “Yes, I would be completely honored to come down to Houston.”

How do you think you’ll incorporate your experience studying the ocean into being an astronaut?

A lot of oceanography gives you perspective on the Earth as a whole system, almost like one big organism, since the oceans are so interconnected and the ecosystems within the oceans are so interconnected. So it’s given me really this perspective of Earth as a whole.

On top of that it gives you very practical experience working on ships, on research vessels, again with these small teams in a remote place in a confined space. So I think all of that will give me a lot of good experience as we head toward this new exciting adventure.

A lot of the research experience I have is very relevant to our search for life on other planets. But more so than that, I’m looking forward to being part of a research project that’s even bigger than my own personal research. So I’m more excited to contribute to the projects going on on the Space Station and perhaps beyond.

Are there any missions in particular you’d like to be on?

I think I speak for everyone when I say we’re just excited to be involved in any of the projects going on in the space program. First we have a two-year training period, so that’s our focus right now. But after we graduate from astronaut candidates to astronauts, I think honestly it’s going to be the mindset of “Have spacesuit, will travel.” We’re just incredibly excited to go anywhere.

Any parting advice for those who want to be astronauts someday?

There is the requirement for a degree in a STEM program — so science, technology, engineering, math. And that’s a really good concrete way to get started for anyone who wants to be an astronaut. But my main advice is just pursue something that you love. Because if you wake up curious and excited every morning, you’re going to be really happy no matter what the end result is, whatever career you wind up in. Just pursue whatever interests you. You know, I sit here in this blue flight suit, and I have to say it’s possible. So you just have to go for it.