As the old inspirational phrase goes, “Reach for the stars.” One Baton Rouge teen is taking a different path, reaching for Mars.
Alyssa Carson, 17, has orbited around the same dream since she was three. It all started when she watched an episode of Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans in which the protagonists venture to the red planet.
“I remember asking everything about space,” Carson said. “What does Mars look like? Can people live there?”
By age six, she was studying maps and video of rovers on Mars. Images of outer space adorned her bedroom.
“Whether it was a video, a book, a poster, it didn’t matter what it was, as long as it had space on it,” she said.
Now Carson is determined to see Mars first hand, eyeing NASA’s first human mission to Mars in 2033. In preparation, she has attended NASA space camps in Alabama, Quebec and Turkey, simulating missions and building rockets. She is fluent in Spanish, French and Chinese, and she’s working on a pilot’s license, scuba license and underwater survival training.
“What I’m working on now is building a resume to make myself seem unique, so I have a higher chance of being selected,” she said. “The astronaut selection process could have 18,000 candidates, but they are only going to pick 12.”
Carson’s father, Bert, thinks his daughter’s chances of being selected are higher than most. He recalls the first time he took her to a space camp in Huntsville, Ala. The father-daughter team stood down a life-size rocket for the first time.
“My jaw just dropped,” Alyssa said. “It was the best long weekend of my life.”
“That’s when I broke down and realized — I think my kid’s going to Mars,” said Bert.
At age 16, Alyssa became the youngest graduate of the Advanced Possum Academy, which certifies astronaut trainees. She has also sat on NASA panels and met privately with officials at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“They’re definitely encouraging and supportive of what I’m wanting to do, because they’re encouraging of everyone who wants to become an astronaut,” she said.
In a recent training session, Alyssa learned how her body reacts to losing oxygen. The practice has left her so comfortable with high-speeds and movement, she recently ate an ice cream sundae moments before boarding a rollercoaster.
“From going to microgravity flights to a rollercoaster, a rollercoaster is pretty nice and smooth,” she said.
If all goes as she hopes, Alyssa will be 32 years old when NASA embarks on its Mars mission. Traveling some 140 million million miles to the planet could take about six months. She would spend more than a year testing water samples and assessing livability. Returning to Mars could take another nine months. Alyssa estimates she will be 36 when the trip concludes, after which she hopes to share her understanding of the planet.
“Whether it be new engines, new ways to grow food, new protection against radiation, all those skills and technology can be returned here to Earth,” she said.
Before all of that, Alyssa will finish her senior year at Baton Rouge International School this coming spring. She then plans to seek an astrobiology degree at the Florida Institute of Technology, followed by a Ph.D.
“I’m not super smart,” she said. “I just try really, really hard.”
But Mars may not be the Baton Rouge resident’s first space mission. Other groups, including SpaceX and MarsOne, are considering sending her to space within the next two or three years. This would make her the youngest astronaut ever.
Beyond her extraterrestrial goals, Alyssa’s extracurricular activities have included Girl Scouts, piano and ballet. She enjoys eating crawfish and watching The Great British Bake Off on Netflix.