Alyssa Carson is standing in an astronaut uniform and smiling into the camera.
Alyssa Carson. Image:

Alyssa Carson: The teenager on a mission to Mars

22 Jul 2020

On a mission to become the youngest person ever in space and one of the first people on Mars, Alyssa Carson discusses her astronaut training to date.

What does it take to become an astronaut? I was fortunate enough to get some insights from one in training recently when I interviewed Alyssa Carson, also known by her Twitter handle NASA Blueberry, after she spoke at Collision From Home.

Now 18 years old, Carson has dreamed of visiting space since she was young. “I got really fascinated with space and, more specifically, being an astronaut. I always thought it would be super cool and super fascinating,” she said.

“The idea of being able float around in space while doing science or whatever it might be really interests me. And the more I learned about space, the more interested I got in actually becoming an astronaut.”

To space camp and beyond

October 2016 marked a huge milestone in Carson’s mission. She graduated from the Advanced Possum Space Academy, a programme at Florida Tech for high school and undergraduate students covering atmospheric science, noctilucent cloud science, mission simulations, spaceflight and spacesuit operations, to name a few of its subjects. This made Carson the youngest person to be accepted into the programme and subsequently graduate from it, as well as certified to travel to space as an astronaut trainee.

Before that, she had taken part in countless initiatives in preparation for the day she would become ready for space. She attended Space Camp seven times and was the first person to attend all three NASA Space Camps in the world. She was selected as a Mars One ambassador, becoming one of seven people representing the mission to establish a human colony on Mars in 2030.

‘It’s very important to talk about your dreams and tell people what you’re interested in’

With such an array of achievements, it should come as no surprise that time management has been one of her biggest challenges.

“A huge challenge has really just been time management, trying to do as much as I can to pursue my dream but, at the same time, just kind of being in school and travelling as much as I do,” she said. “But also going to college and actually getting my degree, which is the important part.

“So my life has kind of always been just a little bit of a juggle, whether that’s staying in school, travelling for speaking, doing some sort of training or even just relaxing.”

Achieving so much at such a young age has been “a lot of hard work and keeping up,” she added. “I mean, especially doing as much as I have done but younger than you’re supposed to, there have been a few academic challenges. I’m not necessarily the most genius person in math and science, so it’s just been a lot of hard work and keeping up with everything you actually have to learn.”

Skills and survival training

It’s not every day you get to speak with a future astronaut, so I was eager to ask Carson about the things she had learned in her training so far. A lot of it, she explained, has been about pushing herself and continuing to grow.

“I think a good example was when I did some water survival training,” she said. “So, basically, I was in a spacesuit and I had to pull myself onto a life raft.

“And I’ve always been, I guess, slightly lacking in upper-body strength, so this was not an easy task. Getting onto a life raft is hard enough, let alone with the extra weight of a spacesuit! And we also had this giant oxygen bottle on our leg. So it was about really pushing myself and being able to pull through.”

Another challenge in her water survival training was stepping from a platform high off the ground: “I feel like when I was younger, I would have really thought about it for a moment. But now I really just kind of push myself.

“I was like: ‘you know what, it’s gonna happen’. So I just kind of did it. I looked down and completely walked off and did it probably faster than anybody else just because I was gung ho to get it over with. So I’ve definitely grown in terms of being able to push myself to new levels.”

Carson was surprised by her own fortitude when it came to her training, but also by the kind of skills she would need to pick up for the rigorous selection process.

“As far as skills in general for becoming an astronaut, so many different skills apply,” she explained. “If you listen to some astronauts, they’ll talk about the interview that they went through in the selection process. And sometimes they’ll get asked a question like: ‘how do you change a car tyre? Do you know how to use this type of wrench?’

“And some of those simple motor and fixing skills, you know, they want you to have some of those as well. So that’s also pretty surprising, because it’s something that most people wouldn’t really think of as something you need to learn to become an astronaut.”

A future in space studies

What’s next for Carson? She’s passionate about contributing to the science industry, she told me, and has chosen to major in astrobiology.

“With astrobiology, I really have the opportunity to study anywhere from little bacteria to entire solar systems,” she said. “So the variety is really there for me to kind of pick and choose what I’ll be interested in.”

Her curiosity about Mars has by no means been quelled either and she’s looking forward to potential missions. “I’m excited to possibly be able to study, like, are there any bacteria in this water that we found on Mars? And learning more about the atmosphere, the soil, the resources – trying to learn as much as we can that will be of benefit.”

As someone who has already spent so much of her life learning about space, Carson also had plenty of advice to share with others. When I asked her what she’d love other girls and women to know about becoming an astronaut, she said: “My advice would be really just start with thinking about yourself, thinking about what you’re interested in, because there are so many different paths to becoming an astronaut.

“And that’s really the cool part about it, that you can study almost anything and then eventually apply and have a chance of getting selected. So really, just start by figuring out what career path you’re interested in.

“You know, I ended up choosing to go down more of a scientist path. You can also be a pilot. You can also study medicine. But there are other opportunities.”

The bare minimum required for astronauts, she added, is getting your master’s degree and some work experience. “But see if you can find some way to build on that.

“Let’s say you’re interested in robotics and maybe building your own robot. Have that on your résumé. It’s kind of the same as any job application: you want to meet the bare minimum, but you want to have something that helps you stick out.

“But while you’re doing all these add-ons, it’s very important to talk about your dreams and tell people what you’re interested in because you never really know where the opportunities are going to come from.

“Someone could know someone who knows someone who can help you out. So, really, just continue to speak about your dreams and really go for it and follow them.”

Lisa Ardill
By Lisa Ardill

Lisa Ardill joined Silicon Republic as senior careers reporter in July 2019. She has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also a semi-published poet and a big fan of doggos. Lisa briefly served as Careers Editor at Silicon Republic before leaving the company in June 2021.

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