It’s 5:48 on a Saturday morning at Heathrow and I’m with Alyssa Carson. It’s taken four-and-a-half months to track her down; in the end, dawn on the weekend at the airport was the only way to make it work. Like your average teenager, the 18-year-old is wearing a grey hoodie, blue jeans and Nike trainers. She’s tied her hair off her face for travelling. So far, so normal. But Alyssa isn’t your typical earthling.
Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alyssa speaks French, Spanish and Mandarin, is in the final stages of obtaining her pilot’s licence, and is enrolled at Florida Tech to start an astrobiology course this autumn. She’s also an astronaut-in-training – something she’s been hell-bent on for as long as she can remember.
Alyssa has attended seven of NASA’s space camps, from its main base in Huntsville, Alabama to internationally licensed camps in Turkey, Belgium and Canada. She’s been to Huntsville’s Space Academy three times, and is the youngest person to have graduated from Advanced Space Academy at the age of 14 (the programme is for 15 to 18-year-olds). Her favourite space movies are The Martian, for its accuracy, and Apollo 13, for its “commemoration of what was a truly incredible mission”. Alyssa has watched three space shuttle launches and has spent the last few years touring the world in the name of space training commitments, giving TEDx talks everywhere from Greece to Romania.
Her goal? To be the first human to set foot on Mars.
Alyssa’s first memory of space was aged three. She cites the Mission to Mars episode of Nickelodeon cartoon The Backyardigans as the driving force for what has become her – and her father, Bert’s – ultimate ambition. There’s no history of extra-terrestrial activity in the family. “This is what I tell everybody,” says Bert, a former freelance videographer who today spends his time on the road handling Alyssa’s intense media schedule. “It’s not the family business. There are no engineers in our family. Nobody in space. Zilch. Nothing.”
Alyssa first set her sights on the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville on the way home from a family vacation. Her grandma took her in and she immediately found herself in awe of the lifesize rockets. She pocketed a brochure and, upon returning home, waved it in her father’s face.
“I was, like: ‘Dad, I wanna go to space camp!’”
As soon as she turned seven (the minimum age to attend), Bert and Alyssa embarked on a parent-child weekend trip to NASA’s Family Space Camp, where they rode simulators, built model rockets and took part in mock missions. By the age of 12 she had another six camps under her belt.
What could have been dismissed as a childhood fantasy soon became much more.
“Back then I thought: ‘Mars is cool, why not go?’” Alyssa says as we drink iced black coffee in the Heathrow Terminal 5 Costa, with the nonchalance of someone deciding whether or not to watch a Netflix show. “I was just curious. Now I understand that it’s bigger than me wanting to go on a little adventure, you know? I understand the importance of going to Mars and what I can bring from it. Learning this has motivated me even more.”
As she sees it, the benefits greatly outweigh the potential risks. Being part of what she calls “the Mars generation”, she considers it “my duty to cross this bridge so that the generations after me can cross theirs”, explaining that a Mars mission could possibly answer questions about sustainability on Earth and the survival of humankind in the wake of the climate crisis.
In July this year NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced a plan to reach Mars by 2033. SpaceX (the California-based aerospace manufacturer founded by Elon Musk with a goal of reducing space transportation costs) has estimated that humans could colonise the fourth rock from the sun as early as 2050. “I’m not necessarily teamed into one [mission],” says Alyssa. “I’m not training with a specific organisation, I’m just doing my own thing. It’s almost like resumé building until I get to that point. My next step is actually becoming a scientist.”
To further enrich her chances of reaching Mars, aged 16 Alyssa joined PoSSUM – Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere – in Daytona Beach, Florida. It’s a non-profit research programme devoted to the study of Earth’s upper atmosphere. She’s its youngest member to date. Thanks to the research missions, geology training and physical endurance it entails – from wearing a real spacesuit in freezing water to hiking through Iceland’s lava tombs – Alyssa is now certified for sub-orbital spaceflight (when a spacecraft travels right to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere but doesn’t reach the altitude at which it can orbit the planet). Despite spending much of her PoSSUM experience holding her breath in minus temperatures, or trapped upside down in a submerged underwater vessel, Alyssa remains unphased by danger.
Instead she’s ready to sacrifice normality and detach herself from her friends and family in the most extreme way imaginable. She’s willing to be launched into the abyss for months, if not years, to achieve her lifelong dream. The 33.9-million-mile journey will take a minimum of two years travel and Alyssa’s body will be subject to intense changes in gravitational force and atmosphere. That’s without even considering the psychological toll.
It’s previously been reported that space mission stress has caused hallucinations, while studies have found that the virtually gravity-free conditions can have a negative effect on basic brain functions and body coordination. If she does make it to Mars – to take the first step in what are utterly inhospitable conditions – the reality is that she might never make it back.
In fact, at best, if all goes to plan, Alyssa will either conduct research and eventually return to Earth – or she will remain on Mars as part of a group tasked with the ultimate scientific quest: colonising the Red Planet. Reports suggest that Mars pioneers will have to live underground to protect themselves from radiation and harmful gases in the atmosphere, and how they’ll obtain a sustainable oxygen and water supply remains a pressing challenge.
“When the realisation began to dawn on my father, he was disturbed, like any father would be,” Alyssa says, reflecting on the realities and rigours of her space destiny. “Sending your daughter off to Mars means many things. As safe and as progressive as space missions are becoming, the risk is always there.”
She explains that no aspiring astronaut can completely commit to their mission unless they, and their families, have come to terms with “these facts”. By that, she means death. According to Alyssa, her doting father “sees her as a gift” and has accepted that he might never be able to see her again after 2033. “I just want to see her as much as I can before she leaves the planet,” he states matter-of-factly.
In 2018, Alyssa published her first book. So You Want to be an Astronaut: A Realistic Guide to Becoming an Astronaut at a Young Age is a response to the kids who ask how they might follow in her footsteps. In the author’s note, she offers advice to her elders: “As a parent, you might lose sleep over your child’s choice of career, but you will understand once you talk to them.” And to her peers: “I hope and pray that all of you will find the will and strength and support you deserve to achieve your dreams.” In the pages that follow she favours biblical titles and quasi-religious vocabulary over the language of science.
“Being an astronaut is not just about flying in space in a spacesuit,” she writes. “It is a lot more than that. An astronaut is the kind of person who is brave beyond comprehension. They are courageous and strong and they know how to keep their wits about them in the face of danger. It is an extraordinary profession to be an astronaut, and it requires extraordinary courage to become one.”
And this is why Alyssa Carson is no ordinary girl. If it’s anyone’s destiny to reach Mars, it’s hers.
Photography assistance Jack Symes, Production Zuzana Kostolanska at Art Partner