Born in Hammond, LA almost exactly 18 years ago, Alyssa Carson knew from the age of three that she wanted to go to Mars. While you were dribbling Frubes onto your booster seat Alyssa was watching Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans becoming fascinated by the imaginary places they visited in each episode. Those imaginary places became a visual aide for the three-year-old to dream about one day touching down on the Red Planet.
Thanks to the unwavering support of her father, Bert, Alyssa became a space camp veteran, visiting 12 camps from the age of eight onwards. Now 18, she is training for the journey of her dreams, a dream that was planted long before Elon Musk was a household name and long before Donald Trump’s non-belief in climate change made you rethink which planet we might need to call home.
Of all the interviews I’ve done, this is the one that is spiking people’s interest the most. A lot of people are asking me ask to ask you about so many things. I’ll start with one of my own questions first though. How often do you dream about space and what emotions do you feel?
It tends to become normal to me because it’s something I’ve been working on and something I’ve been dreaming about forever, it’s something that I’m very passionate about and very interested in learning more on, as I learn more my passion is definitely growing more.
Obviously before you started doing this you didn’t realise how much attention you’d get, you’ve become the face of modern space travel. Do you find that daunting?
Yeah, it’s kind of been crazy. When I started this it isn’t exactly where I expected things would go, but it’s having a positive impact – especially on younger kids. What I’m really trying to express is that if you have a dream or passion you don’t have to wait until college per se to start fulfilling that dream. You don’t have to go after these traditional jobs that most people have and that there’s actually loads of options and opportunities for the next generation to get involved in.
What are your thoughts on being a role model for these young people and particularly for young women?
I enjoy talking to kids, particularly talking to girls and teaching them a little bit about space and about following their dreams, it’s been a lot of fun to speak publicly and meet people because that’s the most impactful way to do that, then with social media and things like that it’s been a great way to teach a lot of people about what’s happening in the space programmes. I know when I was first starting out it was around the same time the space programme closed for NASA and I had a lot of my family asking, ‘What is Alyssa going to do now?’, so I feel like there was a lot lost at that time, but through social media I’ve been able to show and tell people that there is a mission to Mars that we’re hoping to achieve, there’s a rocket being built and there’s a lot of stuff going on.
What’s the most exciting part of it all?
The most exciting part is the different training I’ve had to do so far, it’s a lot more exciting than the studying part, I’ve gotten to do train- ing in zero gravity, spacesuits, decompression, G-force and all these different things as well as travelling to great places.
Do you feel you lead a normal life for someone your age in spite of the fact you have specialist training and host talks around the world?
Yeah, my dad and I always thought that it was super important that I had a balanced life, I wasn’t necessarily a bookworm who just studied space all the time. In school, none of my friends really ask about space or what I’m doing, they’re used to it to the point where they don’t necessarily care anymore, obviously they’ll support me but it’s not the first thing they think about. Growing up I played competitive soccer, I did dance, ballet, piano, girl scouts, language club, robotics…
So you’d consider yourself a stereotypical American school kid?
Yeah, pretty much.
You seem to have a really strong bond with your dad, how important has he been through this whole process?
He’s been super supportive and definitely been a big part of everything I’ve done. When I told him that I wanted to do this he said, ‘Okay, you can do it!’. He travels with me everywhere and I don’t know where I’d be without him, it’s amazing to have that one person supporting you.
If you were to go on a programme into space in the next two years you’d be the first teenager to go there, is that achievement something you want to work towards or are you happy to wait for the right opportunity?
That’s something I want to work towards, especially through a project called PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) where they want to do a suborbital space flight mission to study clouds. A lot of the training for Project PoSSUM correlates to space so that’s why I’ve been working with them, we also work a lot with spacesuits.
Through PoSSUM I’ve gotten my applied astronomic certification which actually certifies me for suborbital flight. It would be a really quick trip; up a couple of hours, cross the line and come back, but it would still have a huge impact for the next generation.
How realistic is that to happen before you turn 20?
I was originally looking at having it happen before I turn 18, but that’s not possible anymore, we’re looking at the likes of Virgin Galactic and we’re talking to everyone to see if it can happen.
There seems to be a misconception online that you are going to Mars in the near future, realistically how long do you think it will take before you could take part in a Mars journey?
I’m definitely not 100 per cent selected for the mission to Mars, but what I’m doing is building a resumé and I’m doing lots of things that make me unique to give me a higher chance of being selected. That’s what I’m working towards right now, build- ing more and more on the resumé. I’m not necessarily looking to apply to the astro- naut’s programme until I’ve gone through college and once I start working in astrobiology, which is what I want to study, is about the time when I’ll start applying, right now the mission to Mars is predicted in the early 2030s.
Wow, so you’ll still be just about 28 or 29 then?
Yeah, I’ll be around 29 then.
Aside from your mention of studying astrobiology in college, do you have a bucket list of things you’d like to do and achieve on Earth before a mission to Mars?
There are some rules for the astronaut selection process, some of those include having a bachelor’s degree in science, technology or engineering. You also have to have three years of work experience or if you’re coming from a pilot background you have to have a thousand hours flying experience, so these are the things I’m working towards to qualify.
Have any of your idols reached out to you to show their support?
There’s definitely been people that have reached out, some of which have helped me on the way; an astronaut called Sandra Magnus who was actually living in my home state of Louisiana. I went to meet her when I was nine or ten, I was asking her when she decided to become an astronaut and how it all started for her. She told me that when she was nine she got the interest and told me that if you have the interest you can decide what you want to do when you’re young and eventually grow up and fulfil that dream. That motivates me that I can make my dream of going to Mars a reality.
The message she passed on to you when you were nine is now what you’re passing on to nine year olds who now look up to you…
Yeah definitely, it’s become what my message is as well. She had a really deep impact on me and I can still remember the moment to this day.
Alyssa Carson speaks at Dublin Tech Summit in the RDS on April 10.
For tickets and more information go to dublintechsummit.com.