Most teenagers have ambitions to travel the world, but few can realistically hope to travel the stars.
At just 18 years-old, astronaut-in-training Alyssa Carson seems almost certain to become the youngest person ever in space, and has already made it her life’s ambition to man the first mission to Mars.
She’s already released a book, spoken at the Dublin tech summit, and given a TEDx talk. She even has her own NASA call sign, Blueberry, named for the replica flight suit she wore at her many, many space camps.
Now Carson has teamed up with Horizn Studios to design prototype ‘space luggage’. We find out all about her training, Martian ambitions, and the possibility, if not probability, of mainstream space tourism.
What are you up to at the moment?
"I’ve been building a resume – in the NASA selection process, 18,000 apply and only 12 get picked, so it can be pretty intense. I’m currently working with a citizen science research programme called Project PoSSUM, studying Earth’s upper atmosphere, and I’m now certified to do a research mission in sub-orbital space. If things come together, I could be on one of their research missions and get my astronaut wings at the same time.
"Ultimately my main goal has always been the mission to Mars, but that wouldn’t be until the 2030s."
Do you know the record for youngest person in space?
"I actually do! The youngest astronaut ever was 25 – that was a Russian – and the youngest American ever was 32. I had been working towards being the first kid in space. Unfortunately, I’m now 18, but now I’ve had the training, I’m working towards being the first teenager!"
What first fired your enthusiasm for space?
"I was around three years old, and I watched a Nickleodeon cartoon called The Backyardigans. On one of their adventures, they went to Mars in a little space shuttle. My dad remembers me asking all these questions about space and about Mars, and my passion grew from there."
Are there role models/astronauts you particularly look up to?
"Yes, definitely. When I was nine years old, I met astronaut Sandra Magnus. I told her that I wanted to be an astronaut and asked when she first decided to become one, and she told me she had been around nine too. That simple conversation really motivated me, and showed me that you can decide what you want at a young age, work hard, and make it a reality."
You’ve already got a major social media presence – do you feel a duty to be a role model even at such a young age?
"I love speaking to kids – the first speech I gave was just blabbering about space history to a bunch of kids at camp. It’s a passion of mine to see kids’ faces light up when you talk about space, and encourage them to get involved. There are lots of jobs you don’t hear about – not just astronaut and engineer."
How have your family and friends dealt with everything so far?
"My dad and my family have always been super supportive. Obviously, when I was three, he didn’t know what I’d be doing at 18, but he would buy me books and posters about space and it’s been really wonderful to have him travel with me. As for my friends, they don’t really care much. They do support me but we don’t really talk about space – we’re normal teenagers!"
Do you ever feel different to your peers?
"Growing up, I lived a pretty balanced life. I put a lot of time into my dream, but I played competitive soccer, and did piano and ballet and Girl Scouts… If my friends were in it, I wanted to be in it too. I feel I’ve had a normal childhood – just with a crazy schedule!"
A lot of astronauts talk about the emotional toll of being so isolated for so long – have you thought about that much?
"Definitely the hardest part about a mission to Mars would be a willingness to leave family and friends, and for astronauts, mental training is just as important as physical training. The way I think about it is that there are many people on Earth doing similar things – people in the military shipped off for months on end, people that work in different countries… I think humans have that strength."
Mars is clearly the dream, but life there seems pretty bleak. How much do you know about the reality?
"With the mission not even planned until the 2030s, there’s still a bunch of different ideas. Mars has lava tubes [caverns within solidified lava] like those in Iceland, so researchers in Iceland have tested using pressurised lava tubes as a habitat to protect from radiation.
"A lot of the habitat will be sent on a flight beforehand. On the rocket, we’d rather have food and water rather than equipment. The testing for new rockets, engines and capsules is going on right now."
It’s clearly a dangerous mission – does that ever make you hesitate?
"Certainly space isn’t a friendly place to visit, but having learned so much about it, it now feels like a norm. The people who work in the industry are very passionate about what they do and everything revolves around astronaut safety, so I feel in good hands."
We put a man on the moon – is there a symbolic significance to you that it might be a women on Mars?
"I think it’s great that astronaut selection processes are now typically half male half female, and it’s awesome to see more women involved in the space programme. Most of all, the mission to Mars is going to be teamwork – I don’t think we’re going to be fighting to go first!
"I just hope the mission is a global, united effort. Hopefully, the mission can have an astronaut from NASA and a cosmonaut from the Russian Space Agency – the world going to Mars, not one company or agency."
You’re helping to create prototype ‘space luggage’. Do you think the age of space tourism is nearly upon us?
"We’ve already had the world’s billionaires paying to go to the International Space Station, and for the general public, it’s getting closer. It’s mainly going to be private industries – Virgin Galactic already have a waiting list – and the technology is there. It’s going to be interesting to see just how soon it happens, but space tourism is the future."
And if you could take just three things to space, what would they be?
"I’d definitely take a lot of mementos, family photos and the like. Also something a bit more sentimental – the first time I went to space camp, I won the Right Stuff award, which is their highest award. Taking that into space would be a full-circle moment for me. Then maybe something goofy, like a soccer ball!"
For more info about the space travel case Horizn ONE, and to purchase the Limited NASA Edition Cabin Luggage from Horizn Studios, visit www.horizn-studios.com