Space Enthusiast Aims for Mars: Meet Alyssa Carson
This article was originally published on July 6, 2020 at https://gritdaily.com/collision-from-home-alyssa-carson/
Outer space is the frontier beyond the reach of the masses so it was pretty exciting to interview a space enthusiast because it’s not everyday that you have the opportunity to speak with an astronaut. Or even an astronaut-in-training; especially a girl boss like Alyssa Carson who is a role model for young women (and men). Carson is a brand ambassador for Nike and SodaStream, among others. She speaks with great pride regarding the immense opportunity for technical careers at NASA and encourages others to take note.
The fact that she is also a member of the STEMinist club and aiming for outer space made the experience all the more delightful. Grit Daily News was a member of the media and one of more than 32,000 people who dialed in remotely for Collision From Home. The 2020 event shifted to a virtual setting given the pandemic.
Space enthusiast, Alyssa Carson in a simulator
Grit Daily: Is learning to fly the first step? And what’s the funkiest think you’ve ever flown?
Alyssa Carson: You don’t need a pilot’s license to fly a spaceship, but I have been learning to fly. Years ago, when I began taking flight lessons, my instructor had this rickety old Piper plane. It was really old! Half the switches didn’t work, and the glass gauges were broken but I learned to fly it, raggedy though it was. I’m still flying but the planes I fly now are a lot newer.
GD: How did your parents react when you told them what you wanted to be when you grew up?
AC: When I first told my Dad, he didn’t think too much of it because every kid wants to be an astronaut. He was very supportive of the idea. When I was seven, he accompanied me to space camp (children were required to attend with a parent). The space bug stuck with me and I attended the Camp every year from then on. It didn’t take my Dad long to figure out that this was more than “just a phase” for me.
GD: Your passion for exploration looks like it started early. You’re scuba-trained and now training to go to Mars. How did you know this was what you wanted to do?
AC: There are numerous paths that anyone can take on their journey to becoming an astronaut. For me, I wanted to be more civilian- and science-centric, so I’ve tried all kinds of new things; and they all connect to space. I’ve gained experience flying a couple of different planes. Scuba-diving has a lot of parallels to space and teaches you important skills like learning how to breathe off a regulator.
GD: How do young children, girls in particular, react when you share your book with them, “So You Want to be an Astronaut?”
AC: Young kids love it because they are enamored with outer space. They are my favorite group to speak to as an audience because they are excited about everything, especially space and the idea of becoming an astronaut. They’re fascinated by all of it. I talk to them about space and the enormous number of jobs available. People don’t realize that it takes thousands of people to get one astronaut off the ground and into space. There are tons of really cool jobs beyond being an astronaut or engineer doing research of food, fatigue and all kinds of cool stuff that’s essential to support a space mission.
GD: What part about astronaut and space school did you get wrong?
AC: When I was younger, I didn’t really know what training for space entailed. It’s not a standard job where you go to college and major in “space.” You complete your academics on a technical path then pursue a related and supporting career, gain some experience, and then you apply to go to space. Access to mentors and others who have chosen this path aren’t readily accessible, so I had to work independently to figure out what to study and which career options to pursue before I applied.
GD: You’re a key member of the Possum 13 elite club of female astronauts. Tell us about it.
AC: Possum 13 is a tribute that nods to the memory of Mercury-13; thirteen women, back in the 1960s, completed all of the rigorous astronaut training and applied to fly into outer space but society just wasn’t ready for women back then. So, they never got to go. Today, it’s a branch of the Project Possum Citizen Science Research Group where everyday people contribute to advancing our collective understanding of subjects related to the study of outer space. We do micro-gravity flights and all kinds of cool stuff. For the past few years, the 13 of us have been doing research together. Our mission is to get girls excited about and into STEM paths. Each year, we do a big micro-gravity project and kids from all over the world submit ideas of what they want to test fly, then we queue up the experiment and fly whatever was suggested for one hour in a micro-gravity environment.
GD: What part of this journey were you least prepared for?
AC: I was not prepared for some of the physical stuff. The training experiences have been intense. Of course, I expected challenges, but it can be intimidating. When you’re doing water survival training, swimming in a heavy space suit and the test is to pull yourself into a raft, you’re thinking “Okay, maybe I can do this.” And then you see a super-fit 30-year old military-trained guy struggling to get into the raft as you’re sitting there waiting to go next. It’s scary!
GD: What do you have to do next to get to space?
AC: The basic requirements, including completing a master’s degree. I just completed my first year of college. Next, I’ll build my skills, keep flying, get my instrument rating license along with my scuba Master Diver certificate and that sort of stuff. Of course, I also need to pass all of the rigorous physical tests.
GD: What’s the message you want to send from space to every young girl down on Earth?
AC: The big message is that you don’t have to wait until college to pursue what you’re interested in. I’m advocating for more girls in the industry but there are still tens of thousands of other jobs that support astronauts going to space. There is a lot of room: often, departments will be all male with only one or maybe two women. We need more rocket testers and scientists.
GD: You’re a brand ambassador for Nike, SodaStream and other big brands. What’s that experience been like? Why do you think that the world has embraced you as a celebrity and how do you want to use your platform?
AC: I’m unclear why but I love it! I believe anyone could have done this so it’s kind of bizarre, but I’ve been doing a lot more speaking, social media, and all that stuff. When I was 11, the space shuttle program ended and everyone was telling me that “NASA has shut down, what are you going to do now?” Even back then, at that age, I realized that there was a gap in public knowledge, so I started speaking about what was going on and sharing what I knew with others. So much of what we do is based on public interest. The whole experience has been absolutely insane and fun; something that I never envisioned for myself. It’s crazy to have opportunities like this. Watching Nike get behind an aspiring astronaut to make the journey almost sports-like has been very cool. Their brand awareness is helping switch the paradigm so that people can be interested in space careers from a younger age instead of waiting until they’re in their mid-30s which is what you typically see in astronaut training programs.
GD: Now, some silly questions. Have you watched the Netflix comedy, Space Force? Have you contacted them to appear on their show?
AC: I’m halfway through it but highly enjoying it. You’re right, I need to contact them to do a cameo! There is a lot of hidden space humor in that show.
GD: As far as space suit styles go, given your choice, would you ask Nike to design one for you, wear NASA’s suits or would you lobby for the ultra-modern SpaceX space suits?
AC: A Nike space suit would be super cool! They are getting more futuristic. If you look at the recent SpaceX suit worn at the last launch, you can tell that they had a super-hero costume designer involved. It’s very fun and cool to be trending. Who would have thought that fashion, functionality and hip design would be trending in space suits?
GD: What’s your big message, Alyssa?
AC: I encourage your viewers and listeners to find their passion and follow their dreams. When I decided that I wanted to be in the first spaceship that travels to Mars, I don’t think that I could have picked anything else that could have been crazier to dare to dream. But no matter how impossible an idea seems, if you believe in it, you can make it happen. Going to Mars sounds insanely impossible but it’s starting to become a real possibility.
Images supplied by Alyssa Carson.