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Alyssa Carson astronaut NASA Mars mission
Alyssa Carson (@NASAblueberry)

Alyssa Carson is the 18-year-old astronaut making Mars her mission

Where most of us nihilistically joke about being blasted out into deep space, the Louisiana-born teen is deadly serious about heading for the red planet

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, it’s likely you’re fully aware that the earth and its inhabitants are hurtling at an unfathomable pace towards – to put it lightly – complete oblivion. With polar ice caps melting at an unprecedented rate, multiple animal species going extinct every single day, and people around the world facing displacement due to climate chaos, things are looking pretty bleak for humanity, which is why NASA has been weighing up option B for a while now. Their plan? Colonising Mars.  

Having set its sights on blasting off to the far-flung red planet in the early 2030s, the organisation’s preparations are already well underway. In fact, NASA has even gotten as far as claiming that, by the time 2033 rolls around, the first manned mission will touch down on Martian soil. Among those hoping to make the trip is 18-year-old Alyssa Carson, who’s been moving towards this truly momentous moment for pretty much her entire life. 

Claiming a kids TV show was the catalyst for her deep-rooted obsession with making it to Mars, Baton Rouge-born Carson spent multiple summers at NASA’s space camp, casually learned four languages, and, eventually, was specially selected by the organisation to embark on astronaut training as part of its PoSSUM program – making her, at just 16, the youngest person ever to do so. Now, with that under her belt, Carson is making some pretty huge decisions as to her future. 

Where most 18-year-olds are making the (admittedly tough) decision as to where to head off to uni and worrying whether their A Level results are good enough to get them there, Carson is making her peace with the dangers of being blasted into orbit, the repercussions the mission could have for her health, and knowing that even if she does make it to Mars, there’s no solid guarantee she’s going to be coming back at all. 

But while she might carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, she insists she’s still enjoying doing normal 18-year-old stuff down here on earth. In a pretty wild turn of events, we got to know the girl who’s been called NASA’s best hope for its upcoming mission to Mars on the phone while locked in a stationary cupboard, as she filled us in on her hopes for the future, what zero gravity feels like, and, perhaps most importantly, what’s going on her Mars playlist for the journey ahead.

Tell us a bit about what it was like going to NASA for the first time?  

Alyssa Carson: The first time I went I was pretty young – we were coming home from a family vacation and happened to see a billboard for the US Space and Rocket Centre, which is in Huntsville, Alabama. My family knew I loved space and rockets and all that stuff, so we stopped and dropped in. We dropped in and that was it: I picked up a brochure for space camp and never looked back. 

What's space camp like? 

Alyssa Carson: The normal space camp is just like a week-long, overnight camp. During your time there you ride simulators and get to have a go in gravity chairs which simulate walking on the moon and all different kinds of things like that. You build model rockets and launch them, and you actually get to do a simulated mission to the moon or Mars. Depending on your role you can be in control at the space station or on the actual mission, and you learn all about space history too. Overall, though, probably one of the best things is that you get to hang out with a whole lot of people who love space as much as you do. 

How prepared do you feel to head off to space? 

Alyssa Carson: I definitely feel like I’m prepared for a suborbital mission, which is where you go all the way up into the upper atmosphere and cross the line into space to do research or something like that. I’m fully trained to do that. In terms of long term missions in space or on say like the international space station, I’m not quite sure at this point. Eventually I hope I will be though.

What’s your training programme like right now? What are you learning?

Alyssa Carson: Currently my training isn't like a school path or anything: I'm just doing things whenever I can to build a resume. I'm headed to Florida Tech to study astrobiology as well as continuing to work with the Citizen Science Resource Organisation, who I've been working with since I was 15. They’re a private company studying the earth's upper atmosphere and their ultimate goal is to do a suborbital flight. We do suborbital space flight training, so things like group gravity flights, water survival things, G-force training, decompression training, and so on. We’re also working with a spacewear company on the development of a suit, so I’ll continue doing different research missions and things with them too. 

“I'm still 18 and I have a totally boring and normal teenage life outside of all the space stuff!” – Alyssa Carson 

What’s the coolest thing you’ve done so far in your training?  

Alyssa Carson: I think the coolest thing was the microgravity flight because just being able to float is a pretty unique experience. It was also pretty cool because it wasn't just a fun flight, we were doing research at the same time, like testing the spacesuit – there was a lot going on. It was really interesting to actually do that and also the sensations you get during the actual flight is just something that's just different from everything else that it's so hard to even explain. 

It must be wild! Did you get sick?

Alyssa Carson: Definitely! I think it's something like 70 per cent of people get sick on their first flight. It's an incredibly uneasy feeling, but It's funny because each person has their own little remedy that they'll come up with to try and ease the sickness. I didn't eat anything all day so I didn't really have anything in my stomach. I just told everyone that I might look terrible but I'm feeling pretty good!

What are you most excited about seeing when you go on your first suborbital mission? 

Alyssa Carson: I’m actually really looking forward to just the experience of going to space and actually being able to contribute to all the exciting things happening in space right now, especially if it was a mission that would be supporting the research organisation I’ve been working with. To see their dreams of finally getting this research they’ve wanted to accomplish underway and be a part of finding out all these new things would be amazing. 

There’s a big chance you might be one of the first people on Mars and you’re working incredibly hard to get there! How do you switch off when you’re not studying? 

Alyssa Carson: I mean I'm still 18 and I have a totally boring and normal teenage life outside of all that. I sit around and watch Netflix for hours and generally just waste time, or I hang out with my friends doing whatever we happen to be doing at that time. I feel like I’ve got a good balance between doing space things but also living a normal life. 

What do your friends make of it all?

Alyssa Carson: Obviously all my friends know what I'm interested in and what I've always loved, but they've known me for such a long time that they don't really care anymore – we don't really talk about space or anything related to it really. I still know that they're supportive of what I want to do, but it's just not what we focus on which I love because they’re basically just letting me get on with being a normal person. 

A lot of people create a playlist before they take a flight or go on a trip. What are you going to put on yours before you go to Mars? 

Alyssa Carson: As far as music goes, I really like Khalid. I've seen him in concert and got to meet him and I'm just a big fan. I would also have to download some of the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack just so I feel like I’m in a movie. There would probably be some other space tunes here and there too: “Rocket Man” for example, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. 

And what will you take with you?  

Alyssa Carson: Actually what an astronaut gets to take into space is very limited. You only get a really small bag, and you can’t take anything that’s too heavy. Most things will be personal keepsakes: I’d take photos of family and friends, like most astronauts do I guess. I’d also probably take my ‘Bright Stuff’ award, which is the highest award you can get at space camp, which I won the first time I went. That would be the most surreal, full-circle moment, I think – getting to take that into space for real.  

Astronauts’ food is dried out and rehydrated when you get into space and we hear it’s not up to much. Before you head to Mars, what will your last meal be? 

Alyssa Carson: I’m from Louisiana so I would definitely want to make a big thing of the seafood – particularly the crawfish! I think I’d also be about the Southern classics, maybe with a gumbo. Basically, I’d just want a typical Louisiana feast. 

“My favourite space movies are probably The Martian and Apollo 13. I think The Martian was an awesome movie that got a lot of people excited about a mission to Mars. It's decently accurate – a lot of the things in The Martian you wouldn't necessarily want to happen, but they can happen” – Alyssa Carson

What’s your favourite space movie? 

Alyssa Carson: My favourite space movies are probably The Martian and Apollo 13. I think The Martian was an awesome movie that got a lot of people excited about a mission to Mars. It's decently accurate – a lot of the things in The Martian you wouldn't necessarily want to happen, but they can happen. Apollo 13 was a really great commemoration of what was a truly incredible mission. I think it’s so interesting and I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve seen it now. 

Do you believe in aliens?

Alyssa Carson: I mean the universe is absolutely humongous and we've explored less than a piece of dust of it. There's definitely so much out there and if you just think about how many solar systems there are in each galaxy and that each galaxy has millions of solar systems. If our sun was the size of a white blood cell in our body – like so small it’s invisible to the naked eye – then the Milky Way would be the size of the entire United States. So while I don’t know how close these intelligent life forms could be, I think they’re definitely out there somewhere. 

What do you think of the proposed storming of Area 51?  

Alyssa Carson: I think it’s hilarious, I love it! The memes have been amazing and it’s so funny how everyone has jumped on board this mission to save the aliens and adopt them! Amazing.  

There’s a chance you will go to Mars and, instead of coming back after conducting research, you’ll stay as part of the group of people who will colonise it. What will that look like and what form will it take?  

Alyssa Carson: Yeah, the ultimate goal is to colonise Mars, but when it comes to the particulars it’s not all figured out yet because the first missions heading there are purely going to be to study and research the landscape. At the moment there’s an idea that the people that do eventually stay will live in habitats that are perhaps underground to protect them from radiation and other harmful things happening on the surface given the planet doesn’t have much of an atmosphere. Among that there will be a series of scientific bases set up where people will try to work out how to use Martian soil to grow food and crops, maybe in a greenhouse-like structure. And then of course there will be transportation areas which the Martian vehicles – which will probably be a bit like the moon buggy we used up there – will move between.  

A big reason behind the need to colonise Mars comes down to the destruction humanity has wreaked on earth. What lessons will the first generation of those colonising Mars be taking with them? 

Alyssa Carson: As far as reusing things and being sustainable goes, space is the place where you have to reuse literally everything. You have to be sustainable, you have to make the most of everything because that’s all you have – sometimes for months and years at a time. I think as we continue working towards further space exploration we’re developing skills and technologies that are making us more sustainable every day. But all that tech and know-how is helping us here, too, because it works on earth as well – many of the products we’re already using towards building a more sustainable future are things developed on a space program. As we continue to research and discover, and build a moon colony or a Mars colony or whatever it may be, all of our findings can be translated here on earth – making us more sustainable both on earth and in orbit. 

If you do eventually become part of the first group to colonise Mars, who would you most hate to be stuck up there with? 

Alyssa Carson: I feel like if it was only my family going it would be a love-hate kind of thing (laughs). No, I’m joking. My dad’s in the background glaring at me. Actually, the thing about missions to space is that the team you’re with you definitely have to get along with and work well together, because eventually you’re going to become a family. The mission to Mars right now is looking at being a two or three year long expedition, so you’d better be close with your teammates! I guess characteristic-wise I wouldn’t necessarily want a team member that’s selfish or not working with the group’s best interests in mind. Basically I’d just want to make sure that everyone there was focused on the mission.

Before you leave will you spend time with your teammates to make sure you all get on? 

Alyssa Carson: We won't be forced to get to know each other before the mission but all of the training that comes before you’ll be doing with the people who are selected. Once you start training directly for your mission, you're doing that with other crew members who are also on the mission and that training is several years long. I think that’s a pretty good amount of time to get to know them and build some strong bonds! 

Say you are successful in your mission to colonise Mars. What message would you like to leave for those left on earth? 

Alyssa Carson: I think a huge thing is that you can decide what you want to do from a young age and work hard towards it, not give up, and have it become a reality. It's not just one big dream that could never come true. I definitely know that at three saying I wanted to become an astronaut and eventually go to Mars was the absolute most crazy dream I could've picked. But, the more I worked towards it, the more it became a reality. Now, getting on a rocket to Mars isn’t such a far-fetched idea! I guess my overall message is that no matter how crazy your idea might sound, there is a strong chance that, if you work for it, it can become a reality.