Aspiring astrobiologist aims for Mars

ITU News caught up with Alyssa Carson, a 20-year-old astrobiology student with ambitions to become an astronaut and eventually perform research on Mars.




Tell us more about yourself!

I am currently a 20-year-old college student studying astrobiology, but I have always had hopes of working in the space industry.

Along with my studies, I have been researching different areas of space, such as microgravity, flight, spacesuit testing, and getting any [experience] I can to eventually apply to the astronaut selection process.

Who are some of your mentors or people who have inspired you?

Any astronaut was automatically cool. I met one in particular, Sandra Magnus, when I was nine.

She was a female shuttle astronaut who taught me that it doesn't matter the age you decide what you want to do.

You can continue to work hard and still turn it into a reality.

What kind of projects you are working on right now?

I am currently in my junior year, so studying takes up a good bit of my time.

But I am also an intern with Jacobs Space Exploration Group on their International Space Relations team. I am helping companies and space agencies around the world partner with Jacobs.

Next week through Project PoSSUM, the research organization I'm a part of, we're going to be doing some underwater spacesuit testing.

What kind of training have you already done?

The different research campaigns I'm able to do with Project PoSSUM are not directly training, but I like to think of it as very similar. For example, underwater spacesuit testing is what astronauts do [to train] for Mars; they go underwater at the Johnson Space Center and run through missions. Of course, it's not directly working with NASA or any big agency.

We have a lot of partners, and we're kind of able to do our own research, and also [practice] skills that are very similar to what astronauts do, like microgravity flights, learning how different spacesuits work or learning to fly. Learning all these skills will be important in the long run.

You often refer to yourself as being a part of the “Mars generation.” What does that mean to you?

The Mars generation [refers to] the people who are going to be able to witness people getting to Mars.

We have enough capabilities; we are totally able to make it happen.

So in our lifetime, we're going to either be a part of it, on the mission or helping the mission, or maybe just watching it on television.

What about actually flying to Mars? Is that still your aspiration?

Yeah! Being able to do my career of astrobiology in space would be the ultimate goal.
Being in college I am able to discover which area of science I like the most. Right now I'm leaning about micro bacteria and space microbiology.

I would like to work with different bacteria, see how they are affected in space and then tie it into what’s happening right now with Perseverance, looking for signs of bacterial life on Mars. Testing soil samples and actually classifying those bacteria would be really cool.

Of course, starting on the ground, hopefully I’ll be able to do some of that in space one day.

But if I am selected as an astronaut, I can't pick and choose where I get to go. Mars would be fantastic and work perfectly with the kind of research that I want to do. But I’m staying open-minded.

Why Mars?

I think the ultimate goal of Mars would be for future generations to have another place, maybe to live with more resources. But I like to think that everything in space always does come back to Earth. For example, if we are trying to figure out this crazy thing like turning Mars into a second Earth, one of the biggest things we're going to have to do is “clean up” Mars' atmosphere. It's mostly carbon dioxide.

So if we figure that out on Mars, we could also clean up Earth's atmosphere.

At the same time, if we learn to grow food on Mars with Martian soil, which is very different, maybe we can also grow food in areas on Earth that are struggling with agriculture.

Although it does seem disconnected, a lot of the things that we do in space always come back in some way for us to continue using those technologies.

This year’s World Space Week theme celebrated women in space. What are your thoughts on getting more women into the space industry?

It takes thousands of people to send one astronaut into space. It isn’t a small task. A lot of different positions are super important.

The next step is getting more women into all those jobs, and not necessarily just [as] astronauts.

When I think of all the people that make it happen, I'm sure there is still some department that has one woman working in it!

When you think about space, you think astronauts, scientists, engineers… and that's about it. But there are lots of really cool jobs that kids have the option to go into, especially with how fast space is adapting and changing right now.

And there's going to be even more job opportunities within the industry. As we are talking to little girls of the next generation, I think we need to make sure they know all the options they have.

What has your experience been like?

Growing up, when I was going to space camps, they were always several girls. So I didn't really understand that the science and space industry was male-dominated. But then I went to college and couldn't find another girl with my major. My university is very male-dominated because it is a STEM-specific school. Especially with my major, I was struggling a good bit. I now met a few, so, you know, we're growing.

But besides school, I was always exposed to amazing and powerful females in the STEM and space industries.

In Project Possum there were always women professionals doing cool things and people to look up to. I had those female role models. It wasn't until I started getting more involved that I [began] noticing the disparities.

Although the female [STEM] community is smaller, it's strong. And I do think that the women involved in space are doing as much as they can to encourage the next generation.

What advice would you give to fellow aspiring astronauts?

Figure out what it is you want to do and what you're passionate about.

There's no one way to be an astronaut.

Apply to some sort of master's degree and get some work experience, ideally in the STEM industry. Look for opportunities, big or small. It could be a club in your local area. Or a small event, maybe a robotics competition that's happening in your town to see if you like robotics. Maybe it's an online seminar about science.

And definitely don't be afraid to talk about your dreams and your goals. Tell people what you're interested in because you never know where that [conversation] could lead. In the STEM community, we want more people and would be more than willing to help and support you!

In your view, what can international organizations like ITU do to ensure that space is used for the benefit of all people?

It is so important that we always remember the international side of space. And I think that we are opening [space] up to more people. Space is for everyone, so I think that the international side will continue to grow.

For kids in countries that don't have a space agency, now is definitely the time to keep your interests [up] and stay involved because there are many opportunities coming up, especially with the private side of space.

We are used to government space agencies, but private space companies [also] want the best of the best. So if you're interested in space, don't be afraid to look into them!

Anyone internationally: stay open because a lot is happening in space.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons