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Public Service

Commencement speaker preps for space

In this video, Zena Cardman shares her excitement about her space mission and speaking to the Class of 2024.

Press the play button above to watch the video

When Zena Cardman’s email inbox sends auto-reply messages during her travels later this summer, the phrase “out of this world” will be more accurate than “out of office.”

Cardman ’10, ’14 (MS) is set to travel to the International Space Station in August. But before her first spaceflight, she’ll come back to Carolina to address the Class of 2024 at Spring Commencement.

“I am so looking forward to the chance to be back in Chapel Hill,” Cardman said. “It’s a place that really feels formative and like home for me. I’m really excited to be giving this speech, and it’s such an honor to have been invited.”

Cardman’s upcoming mission will last several months and involve some maintenance and upkeep projects around the station, along with plenty of research and laboratory work. The passion for research and collaboration is something Cardman discovered as a student in Chapel Hill.

“One of the most important influences for me and my personal journey was the students that I was at Carolina with,” Cardman said. “People were so interdisciplinary and creative. If there was a club that didn’t exist, they would just start it. And so I think having this multifaceted, multiangle approach to what I do was really valuable ultimately when I became an astronaut.”

But Cardman’s time in Chapel Hill wasn’t all spent studying and doing research. When she looks back on the things she enjoyed most at Carolina, there’s Weaver Street Market, afternoons on Polk Place and especially the people who shared those experiences with her.

“The most fond memories I have at Carolina were my friend group,” Cardman said, “from people that I started freshman year with to people I worked in laboratories with who really became more like family.”

She also became quite fond of Tar Heel sports, particularly the women’s soccer and men’s basketball teams, which both gave her plenty to cheer about during her years as a Carolina student. She cheered with thousands of her classmates in April 2009 when Carolina’s basketball team won its fifth NCAA title.

“I feel really lucky that I was there when we won a national championship and got to be on Franklin Street,” Cardman said. “That was such a good time.”

And while she still follows Carolina sports closely, Cardman and fellow astronaut Christina Koch, a graduate of North Carolina State University, focus more on their shared love for North Carolina than the rivalry between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack.

“I don’t think that we talked any smack during the ACC Tournament,” Cardman said, laughing. “We spend a lot of time talking about North Carolina. It’s a state that’s really important to us, and I love having the state school in North Carolina connection with Christina. She’ll be going around the moon next year on the Artemis 2 crew.”

As she prepares to spend months among the stars later this summer, Cardman is excited about the occasion underneath them at Kenan Stadium – Carolina’s first evening graduation.

“Being the first Commencement speaker for an under-the-stars graduation feels very apropos and close to my heart,” Cardman said. “I can’t wait to see what that’s like, and I’m just so thrilled for all of the graduates. It’s going to be great.”