For Alyssa Carson, colonizing Mars is just the first step in saving the human race.
The 18-year-old astrobiology student at Florida Tech remembers when she was nine years old, she had the opportunity to meet and speak to former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus at the Sally Ride Science Festival in Louisiana.
“I asked her, ‘When did you decide to become an astronaut,’ and she told me that she was around nine or so,” Carson, a freshman at Florida Tech, told FLORIDA TODAY.
Already engrossed in all things space, the brief encounter with Magnus gave Carson the extra push to continue to pursue a career in the space industry.
“She just kind of inspired me that you can decide what you want to do at a young age, work hard and it can actually become a reality,” Carson said.
She’s now 18 years old with a pilot’s license, is “certified” to go to space and hopes to be a part of the crew that lays down the foundation to colonize the red planet.
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“Eventually the sun will run out of fuel to burn … and conditions on Earth are going to be very different from our normal regular life now,” Carson said. “It’s not necessarily saying Mars is the savior here … but Mars is that first step in getting people a bit more accustomed to even thinking about living on other planets and being able to colonize someplace else.”
“We’re not ready to pack up our homes and start moving or anything, but I definitely think we are at that time to start introducing that idea to eventually continue building the technologies and sign up,” she said.
With a large social media following – about 175,000 followers on Instagram and over 13,000 on Twitter – as well as a personalized website where those interested can purchase one of Carson’s mission patches or donate to her foundation, the life plan Carson set out when she was little has been a long time coming.
“I think it’s wonderful that young people are so excited about going to space and to the moon. And colonizing Mars is just fantastic because you know our future is always in the hands of young people,” former space shuttle astronaut Winston Scott told FLORIDA TODAY. “The future is always the future generation so it’s good that we have young people coming along who want to pick up that challenge and move us forward.”
Originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Carson has always been interested in outer space and exploring other planets, even though the rest of her family wasn’t as captivated.
It started with ‘The Backyardigans’
Raised by her dad, the aspiring Martian walker has spent most of her time traveling throughout the country and world to achieve her dreams.
“As a three- or four-year-old, she got interested in Mars and thought about it and wanted to be an astronaut … and I told her, “yeah, you can do whatever you want to do,” thinking it would change, but it never changed,” Carson’s dad, Bert Carson, who is also Alyssa’s manager, told FLORIDA TODAY. “You have to support your kid’s dream, even if the dream is out of this world.”
Still, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t sometimes fear what could happen to her if she does leave this planet.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bert Carson said. “I mean, I’m proud of what she’s accomplished but on the other side of this, I know everything out there wants to kill her so it’s hard as a parent, but I feel like you have to support your child and their dream even if it’s a dream that may kill them. She’s gotten me to understand how important it is about saving the human species so I have to look at it like it’s bigger than the two of us.”
It first started with children’s TV show, “The Backyardigans.”
One specific episode titled, “Mission to Mars,” was the initial spark for Alyssa Carson’s interest in space.
“From that point, I was just always asking for books or videos or whatever I could learn about space,” Carson said.
She was about five years old at the time.
Three years later, she attended her first (of many) space camps in Alabama, and the following year when she went back, her call sign, “NASA Blueberry” originated.
“The second time I went to space camp, I wanted one of the light blue suits that everyone was wearing, but I was too small to fit in any of them,” Carson said. “So we ended up finding this knock-off of a really dark blue suit and of course I wore it and everyone told me that it made me look like a blueberry.”
“So all throughout the day they would ask, ‘Hey, Blueberry, can you do whatever,’ and it kind of stuck … and they were like, ‘Oh, by the way, we give people call signs so your call sign should be Blueberry,” she said.
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Three TEDx Talks later…
From then on, Carson would go on to attend multiple space camps every summer, including ones in Canada and Turkey, making her the first to have attended all three NASA space camp locations in the world, according to her website.
When she was 11, she gave her first public speech to around 400 children who were attending a 4-H camp. The speech topic? That’s right, space.
“I started speaking because a friend of ours was like, ‘Hey, we have a 4-H camp. Do you want to come teach them stuff about space history,’ and I was like, ‘Sure,'” Carson said. “It was definitely a very bad speech, but it was a good way to introduce me to public speaking.”
It’s probably a good thing she got introduced to public speaking at an early age, seeing as she gave her first TEDx Talk at 13. In total, she has delivered three TEDx Talks – all related to space of course – in Romania, Austria and Greece.
Then in 2013, NASA invited Carson to speak at a conference in Washington, D.C. along with four other space experts to discuss crewed missions to Mars.
“We wouldn’t go to Mars without people like that,” Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden told FLORIDA TODAY. “You got to have somebody that wants to go there and you got to have somebody that thinks it’s important to do that, and you got to get lots and lots of young people that think that way for the program to move ahead”.
At age 12, she was the youngest panelist there.
It was at that panel where Carson met NASA’s astrobiology program’s director, Mary Voytek, and realized she wanted to study astrobiology when she attended college.
“I was originally thinking about studying astrophysics and then talking to an astrobiologist, she was explaining that astrobiology is kind of like astrophysics, but kind of a bit more of a mix of all the different sciences,” Carson said. “To be more of a well-rounded scientist was kind of what I was going for.”
But few universities in the U.S. offer astrobiology as an undergraduate degree. Instead, those wishing to focus on astrobiology can either take it as a minor during their undergraduate studies or during graduate school.
“Astrobiology is incredibly important,” said Scott, who is also senior vice president for external relations and economic development for Florida Tech. “Not just in trying to find life on other planets, but also to help us learn how to live and survive on other planets. That’s the most important thing.”
That’s where Florida Tech comes in. The university – founded around the space industry – is among the few to offer astrobiology as an undergraduate degree.
“To our knowledge, Florida Tech’s astrobiology degree program is the first and only undergraduate astrobiology program in the country,” according to the university’s website.
Plus, getting the opportunity to watch rocket launches isn’t too shabby either.
“It’s definitely amazing to actually be here and just know how close everything is,” Carson said. “I won’t have to miss a launch or whatever it is because I’d be in Louisiana doing whatever.”
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‘A single planet species will become extinct’
Despite not growing up on the Space Coast, Carson has still seen her fair share of launches, her first back in 2010 for space shuttle Atlantis.
In fact, though she grew up in Baton Rouge and maintained a “well-balanced life” – going to school, having extracurricular activities and hanging out with friends and family like most kids – she has also been to 26 countries and knows four languages: English, French, Spanish and Mandarin, which she was required to learn in school.
“As she’s progressed through this journey, she has determined and sees how important it is we take this baby step out of the cradle and onto somewhere else if the human species is going to continue to exist because as I say, a single planet species will become extinct,” Bert Carson said.
Back in 2016, she became the youngest to be accepted and graduate from the Advanced PoSSUM Academy – an immersive astronautics program for high school and college students held at Embry-Riddle University – making her certified to be an astronaut trainee and hitch a ride to space.
“Project PoSSUM is a private citizen science research organization that studies the upper atmosphere,” Carson said. “We do suborbital spaceflight training in real Final Frontier Design spacesuits.”
Most recently she and others from Project PoSSUM completed a series of gravity-offset tests and evaluations of the extravehicular activity spacesuit prototypes at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters near Montreal, Quebec.
Now with that certification under her belt, as well as a pilot’s license which she acquired in August, Carson is well underway to achieving her dreams.
She’s not the only one, though. Others like her also hope to head to the red planet one day and are also gaining traction with a large online social media presence.
Abigail Harrison, who goes by “Astronaut Abby” on Twitter, hopes to be the first human to walk on Mars. She has close to 200,000 followers on Twitter. Then there’s Giulia Carla Bassani from Italy, another aspiring astronaut who has over 21,000 followers on Instagram.
“I encourage all these young people to pursue their dreams to be flying in space or some other dream, but those who want to be astronauts, I highly encourage it,” Scott said. “Access to space is going to continue to expand and there are going to be more and more opportunities to fly and work and live in space as the years go by.”
“The idea of going to Mars is becoming more of a norm,” Carson said. “Matt Damon did it, so why can’t we do it,” she said, referencing the Hollywood actor’s role in the sci-fi film “The Martian.”
Who knows, maybe by the time she’s completed all her studies, she’ll be waving to us from our celestial red neighbor.
Follow Antonia Jaramillo on Twitter at @AntoniaJ_11.
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