Usually, when a kid announces, “I want to be an astronaut!” he or she gets a pat on the back and a few patronizing smiles in return. We adults like to say “You can be anything you want” but when it comes to space travel, the unspoken caveat is, “It’s really, really unlikely.” For most kids, the dream is eventually supplanted by something else, something a little more realistic. But not for 15-year-old Alyssa Carson.
Like so many dreamers, Carson decided she wanted to fly to space at a young age. But rather than leave these longings in the realm of fantasy, she chased them. Tirelessly. A decade later, the teenager from Baton Rouge has refined her dream. She doesn’t just want to be an astronaut, she wants to land on Mars. The Red Planet. And she’s been busy making a case for herself, with a big assist from her dad, Bert Carson.
When I spoke to Carson by phone recently, I was quickly taken by how “normal” she sounds. Ask about her daily routine and she comes off like any ordinary American teenager. She goes to school, plays soccer, posts on social media, watches Supernatural, and listens to The Chainsmokers. But you can’t chat with Carson for long before the depth of her commitment reveals itself.
Turns out, if you want to visit Mars there’s a mile-long list of qualifications you need to run through. Carson knows all about that list and she’s spent her life checking boxes, one-by-one. She’s already attended three shuttle launches and become the youngest person ever to complete 20 stints at NASA space camp. She takes classes in four languages and received her rocket license before trying for her driver’s permit. She’s gone on NBC Nightly News and the BBC and was the youngest person ever accepted to the Advanced PoSSUM Academy — a program for high school and undergrads in upper atmospheric research and manned space flight.
“They’re basically preparing people for space flight,” Alyssa says of PoSSUM. “Doing different kinds of real astronaut simulations such as using the zero G plane, flying a plane sideways, upside down. I’ll also be learning more about space suits and hypoxia — where they start taking a little bit of oxygen away from you so you know the symptoms.”
If everything goes according to Carson’s master plan, which includes training for oxygen deprivation, she’ll be the first person to walk on Mars. That’s the best-case scenario. At the very worst, she’s put together the most impressive college application of all time. Doubt that? Check out her TED Talk.
Through it all, Alyssa has had constant support. When she started talking about space flight at age five, her dad quickly recognized that it was no passing interest. At the time, he cared very little about anything beyond our atmosphere, but thanks to his daughter’s ferocious ambition, Bert Carson was thrust into a world of NASA, astronautics, and the great unknown. His world now orbits around his daughter’s fascination with the fourth rock from the sun.
“Little did I know that I would be raising a child that I’m supporting to leave this planet,” Carson says, choking up. “And that’s just something that blows your mind, when you think about it. I still have to look at it, as a father, that I’ll have my child for twenty more years and then I may not ever see her again. And that’s hard. But, for what she’s wanting to do, I have to support her. I have to let her go. It’s bigger than the two of us.”
Alyssa’s out-of-this-world trajectory seems to help father and daughter appreciate their time together. By their count, they have until 2033 — when the sun’s radiation will be at an all-time low, Mars will be closer to Earth than it’s been in thousands of years, and the necessary tech will be ready (small detail).
There are sure to be endless variables that surface between now and then, but Alyssa’s drive isn’t one of them. Ask the teenager about her five-year plan and she’ll tell you that after she finishes high school, she wants to study science at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. for undergrad, get her Masters in space engineering at the International Space University in France, then attend MIT to study astrobiology.
Alyssa Carson’s longing to go to Mars may have started as a childhood dream, but these days it seems well within her reach.
To see how humanity’s first manned mission to the Red Planet would unfold, tune into the global event series, MARS, Mondays at 9/8c, premiering November 14 on the National Geographic Channel. Check out MakeMarsHome.com for more information.