Blast off to Mars
Alyssa Carson stands in front of a board showing a book about Mars and pictures of her during her time training to be an astronaut. She spoke Saturday at the main branch of the Evangeline Parish Library to a group of summer readers and their parents. (Gazette photo by Tony Marks)
Man has always been fascinated with science fiction. Part of this fascination is finding little green men from Mars in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Chuck Jones fed off of this when he created his popular Marvin the Martian character on Looney Tunes. But for one Baton Rouge teenager, science fiction is turning into reality as she prepares to be the first woman on The Red Planet in 2033.
Alyssa Carson and her dad Bert addressed a group of summer readers and their parents at the main branch of the Evangeline Parish Library last Saturday. The 16-year-old Alyssa told her audience about how she first got interested in the space program and about the training she has undergone.
“When I was around three-years-old, I first got interested in space and space travel,” she said.
She went on to explain that her interest in space came from an unlikely source. “The way I first found out about space was from a cartoon I was watching as a little kid,” she said. “It was The Backyardigans with the little creature friends that jump around in the back yard. One of their imaginary adventures was a mission to Mars. They explored it, and so, being a little three-year-old, I wanted to be one of their friends and go on their trips with them. I wanted to go to Mars with them.”
Alyssa then started asking her dad questions about Mars because, as she said, “it was something that just piqued my curiosity.” She went on to say, “From there as a little girl I just sat in my room with little space books all around and space posters, and I started reading about space. That’s when I decided that becoming an astronaut was something that I wanted to do.”
Years later she began attending space camp at the U. S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. “The first time I went to space camp was for a long weekend,” she said, “and it was the best long weekend of my life. I was riding little simulators, I was flipping around, and I was doing simulated missions. I was all over the place asking so many questions.”
Bert relayed to the audience his Aha! moment of when he first realized his daughter was serious about going to Mars. “The first time she went to space camp was when she was eight-years-old,” he said. “She had to do a parent-child camp because she wasn’t old enough, so I went through the whole thing too. There’s this thing at space camp called The Right Stuff Award that they award to one kid each week out of all the thousands that are there that week. Alyssa won The Right Stuff Award the very first time, and so that was the Aha! moment where I realized my kid’s going to Mars.”
“When you have a kid there who knows a lot about Mars who is speaking four languages, all of these different crew trainers would come around and see her,” Bert continued. “It just kept leading to other things to where by the time she was 12-years-old, she was sitting on a NASA panel in Washington, D. C. discussing the future missions to Mars in the 2030s with three PhDs and an astronaut.”
From there Alyssa has undergone training for space missions such as advanced scuba certification. She is currently working on her pilot’s license and her sky diving training. As she explained, “technically I’m an astronaut in training.”
She then added, “A big thing that kind of helped was finding the space camp because they really pointed me in the right direction and how to get more involved. They also showed me what steps could actually make a unique resume because when you apply to become a NASA astronaut there’s about 18,000 people you’re applying against. You really have to single yourself out and make yourself seem unique.”
She went on to explain one unique training she has undergone to separate herself from the herd. The training is called PoSSUM Academy which stands for Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere. Although it is not considered a space flight, the academy has given Alyssa valuable experience.
“The mesosphere is the highest level of our atmosphere,” she explained. “What they do at PoSSUM is do science research in the top part of the atmosphere. There’s a new type of cloud that was discovered about 10-years ago that actually forms in the highest part of the atmosphere. These clouds actually glow.”
She then told the audience about a mission she did this summer through the program. “I got to go to high level Alberta, Canada, so as high in Canada as you can get,” she said. “We were around the 60th parallel near the Arctic Circle. We went up in an airplane only about 19,000 feet in an unpressurized cabin, and we were actually taking pictures of the clouds. We got to see these clouds forming and lighting up the sky. It was part of this good science mission which helps me be unique.”
Bert then gave his insight on why his daughter will eventually achieve her dream of reaching Mars. “I think she is on the short list,” he said. “One of the PhDs was John Conley who worked for NASA, and when she got to be 14-years-old he had been moved over to the International Space University as a liaison for NASA. He invited her to take two weeks of masters’ classes with International Space University to get a taste of what it’s like.”
“Now what’s happening is John is doing his last International Space University right now,” Bert continued, “and he’s moving back to NASA to be part in charge of the Mars mission. What better way to have this happen than to have your mentor who has been training you since you were 12-years-old be in charge of the Mars mission? And what better Hollywood story for them to write than if she steps foot on Mars with him in charge of it, and they met when she was 12 as she was discussing the future missions to Mars?”
While she is training to reach new frontiers, both Alyssa and her dad stressed that she is just a normal girl at school. “Growing up I was obviously interested in space, but I’ve also done other things,” she said. “I played competitive soccer for years. I did dance, ballet, piano, Girls’ Scouts, Junior Beta, Book Club, and French and Spanish Club. I kind of had a balance of doing space and also being a normal girl as well.”
Her dad then told a story about when Alyssa went to speak on the NASA panel in Washington, D. C. He said that her teacher decided to turn it into a field trip for the rest of the class at Baton Rouge International School. He said, “One of my favorite quotes from the trip is when her classmates said, ‘We forget Alyssa is famous.’”
Alyssa then advised the younger members of the audience to always chase their dreams. “When you first get interested in something, just keep going after it no matter what subject it is,” she said. “Once you find the subject that you’re interested in, research different areas that you could go into. Choose something that will interest you and something you can see yourself doing and really work toward it.”