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Meet the teenage astronaut in training on a mission to Mars

Interview by Stacey Soluade

Astronaut in training Alyssa Carson is on a mission to become the youngest person ever in space and one of the first people on Mars.

Alyssa graduated from the Advanced Space Academy at 16-years-old, becoming the youngest person to do so. She has now received her certification in applied astronautics, which certifies her to do a suborbital research flight for Project PoSSUM, a space and science research organisation.

Alyssa hopes to inspire other young people to get into STEM from an early age through public speaking at events such as TEDx, and with her book ‘So You Want To Be An Astronaut’. The 19-year-old now has her sights set on graduating in Astrobiology and completing her first analog mission.

Our guest writer Stacey Soluade speaks with Alyssa about her steps to becoming an astronaut, her female role models, and her ambition to travel to Mars...

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do...

I’ve been fascinated with space and becoming an astronaut in particular ever since I was around 3-years-old. I always thought the idea of being able to float around in space while doing science would be super cool. At the moment I’m currently studying Astrobiology at college and I try to gain extra experience whenever I can in my free time.

I’m part of the Project PoSSUM programme which is a space and science research organisation. It’s a bunch of everyday people coming together to contribute to researching science. It’s an amazing experience for me as it involves the training that actual astronauts do. I’m now qualified and certified for a sub-orbital space flight.

What is it about Space and Science that you love so much?

When I was younger I became fascinated by space because of the curiosity of it.. there’s something so interesting about all of the unknowns. As I’ve grown older, the more I’ve learned about space, the more I’ve learned about the benefits it has for us all. This has made me want to contribute to the space industry using my strengths in any way that I can. And of course, it would be amazing to be on a mission one day!

When you first decided to train as an astronaut, did you have any preconceptions as to what one looked like?

When I was younger I didn’t really have much of an idea of who astronauts were and I think that’s the biggest issue - so many kids are interested in space and haven’t always seen visible representation in the media, like women and younger people.

One thing for me that I’ve been trying to change is to encourage younger people who are interested in space to go for it at any age. The youngest person, in the USA, to fly to space was 32 and I always just thought why is that. Of course, you have to do the training and attend University but why have we never sent anyone younger.

I think the next steps should be to get more women involved in the industry - which is already happening and is amazing to see - but also to capture the younger generation in this. Seeing more females of all ages working in the various roles throughout the space industry would be amazing.

How do you view astronauts now?

An astronaut can be absolutely anyone! I had a tour of SpaceX by an 18-year-old and straight away I was like: ‘what do you do here?’ It instantly got my attention because she was the first person I saw who was a similar age to myself.

The definition of an 'astronaut' is always changing though, and I think it will continue to do so over the next few years. As we move more towards space tourism it’s going to significantly shift the perspective of what an astronaut looks like, so I think even the word 'astronaut' is going to find a new meaning in the future.

What does your average day look like as an astronaut in training?

I’m just a normal 19-year-old college student doing my work ,but then I do as much extra training as I can whenever I have the opportunity.

I went to various space camps up to the age of 18 - it was usually for a whole summer and I got to absorb everything there was to know about space science. You learn so much and they make it as real as possible for you, which is cool. You get to train on things like a simulator for walking on the moon or learning how to build your own rocket! For Project PoSSUM it’s being in real space suits, climbing out of simulating capsules, and completing various tests in lunar and microgravity. It’s intensive but that progression makes it feel a lot more real.

Space camps are all around the world and anyone can go which is so great. For Project PoSSUM everything we do is for real-life research, so you have to fill in an application. I joined the programme at 15 so I was able to show that this is something that can absolutely be done by someone who’s young. There have been a lot more 18-year olds getting involved in the programme since and it's been incredible to see.

What’s it like being a young woman training in your field?

When I was younger I didn’t notice too much that it was such a male-dominated field, but I can definitely see that now that I’m attending college. The university I go to, Florida Tech, is predominantly a space and STEM school, and currently has something like 70% male students to 30% female students.

What has been amazing though is that I’ve got to meet other young women who are also interested in STEM. When I was in high school not many girls necessarily had that direct interest that I had, so it’s really nice to now know amazing girls who are doing something cool in STEM.

Project PoSSUM has such a diverse range of women - I’m still one of the youngest, even now. But it’s good to meet those from different backgrounds and careers who take part. Having this community of women around me really does make a huge difference.

Your ambition is to be one of the first people who travel to Mars - can you tell us more?

Right now the mission to Mars is set for the early 2030s. The construction and testing of the new SLS and Orion capsule will continue to be developed to ensure it is safe for humans to travel there. This all aligns with my timeline because of course, I need to graduate from college, get a Master's degree and gain experience working in the space industry. Then I can start applying and go through the selection process.

So it’s my ambition to be ready and be one of the first ones on a mission to Mars. It’s kind of lucky that what I was dreaming of as a kid is now an actual possibility!

How important are female mentors to you?

Really important. So many female mentors have made me think that what I want to do is definitely possible.

When I was 9 I had the opportunity to meet Sandra Magnus, a shuttle astronaut, and I was hugely inspired by her. When I met her I asked her when she decided to become an astronaut, and she replied at 9-years-old. That moment showed me that you can decide what you want to do at a young age - as long as you work hard you can achieve your goals!

I hope to inspire other kids in the same way so that they can work to follow their dream, no matter what it is and no matter how old they are.

What would you say to a girl interested in Space and STEM?

I would say consider what you love doing and what kind of job you’d be happy doing in the space industry, then once you have an idea it’s really important to talk about your dreams and your goals. Not only for your own self-belief, but because you never know what opportunities lie ahead if people know what you're passionate about. Don’t be afraid to seek out mentors and contact professionals in the industry for advice, because more often than not they will want to help in some way.

Also, connect with other like-minded people your own age. Join an after-school robotics club and attend any training camps - there are so many online now which really can make a difference.

At three years old, saying I wanted to be an astronaut and travel to Mars was probably the craziest thing I could say. But it’s now becoming more of a reality, so don’t let anyone take your dreams away from you. If it’s something you want to do you can totally do it!

What’s next for you?

I’ve just recently been accepted onto an internship with a company called Jacobs where I’ll be on their interaction space exploration team, which is exciting, and I’ll be continuing with Project PoSSUM.

One of my big goals I’m hoping to achieve is to be involved in something called an analog mission. This is where you’re put into an environment that simulates a mission to space. So even if you want to go outside you have to put on a spacesuit and you stay with the same team during the entire simulated mission.

Find out more about Alyssa

All photos provided by Bert Carson, Alyssa's father


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