Meet NASA’s newest astronauts

Zena Cardman has hunted bacteria in Antarctica. Studied life on the barren plains of Hawaii’s Mauna Ulu volcano. And now, her quest for life in remote places may take her to Mars, thanks to NASA.

Zena Cardman in flight suit and in front of jet (NASA)

Cardman, 29, was one of a dozen people selected by the U.S. space agency from a record-breaking 18,000 applicants to become one of America’s next astronauts.

The 12 — all with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics — now become students again. During two years of training, they will learn about robotics, spacewalking and flight in a supersonic jet trainer called the T-38. They will also study the Russian language so that they will be able to work with their Russian counterparts on the International Space Station. Once they complete their training, they will move from being “candidates” to officially becoming astronauts.

“We have to be sponges,” Cardman said in an interview with the news service of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned two degrees.

She along with four other women and seven men are likely to undertake missions to the International Space Station or venture to the moon or Mars.

“There’s a lot to learn — from each other, from all of the specialists at Johnson Space Center, from international collaborators and centers from all over the country,” said Cardman, who grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia.

In addition to her scientific training, Cardman helped start a magazine exploring intersections of science and art. She still writes poetry and raises chickens in her backyard.

Meet a few others who made the cut for NASA’s most competitive astronaut selection ever:

Raja Chari in flight suit and in front of jet (NASA)

Raja Chari

  • 39 years old
  • U.S. Navy test pilot
  • From Cedar Falls, Iowa
  • Master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Chari has flown just about every modern U.S. fighter jet, logging more than 2,000 hours in the F-35, F-15, F-16, and F-18.
Jessica Watkins in flight suit and in front of jet (NASA)

Jessica Watkins

  • 29 years old
  • NASA researcher
  • From Lafayette, Colorado
  • Studies the Red Planet with NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover
  • Encourages girls who are interested in science to reach out to a mentor, whether it’s a teacher, professor or supervisor. “That’s been something that’s been really important for me.”
Robb Kulin in flight suit and in front of jet (NASA)

Robb Kulin

  • 33 years old
  • From Anchorage, Alaska
  • Drilled ice in Antarctica and worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska
  • Studied in Italy as a Fulbright fellow
  • Led launch teams at private space company SpaceX
  • Loves his rugged home state. “I think that whole spirit for adventure and exploration is what kind of got me interested in space in the first place,” Kulin said in an interview with The Verge.