Alyssa Carson: From the Age of Seven, Her Eyes Were on Outer Space
Most people need to reach their twenties, thirties, forties—even their fifties and beyond—before they figure out their life’s work. Not Alyssa Carson. Now all of 20, she had a vision for her future when she was seven years old and attended her first Space Camp. She has since attended six more, making her the only person to take part in every one.
But wait. There’s more. At 16, Alyssa participated in the Advanced PoSSUM (Project Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) Space Academy. Then at 18, she earned her pilot’s license. Her training has included water survival, G-force training, microgravity flights, obtaining scuba certification, and decompression training. She has given TED talks, self-published a book about her goal of becoming an astronaut, appeared in documentaries and news programs, and made dozens of talks on space travel.
I recently had the pleasure to talk with Alyssa as part of DataRobot’s podcast series. And the first question I had for her was: How did she gain so much focus, so early?
“Growing up, I was pretty settled early on,” she told me. “I knew, for sure, I was going to go into some kind of STEM career. I was ahead of my friends and middle school and high school because I had more of an idea of what I wanted to do. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. My dad (Bert Carson) was super supportive. Talking about your dreams and finding someone to support you is really important.”
It’s important, she says, for young people to identify areas of interest and take the small first steps to learn more about that subject. “Let’s say you’re interested in space robotics, but that feels really distant, really hard to achieve. Start by just joining the local robotics club, nothing too complicated. Maybe go to some of those robotics competitions. But while you’re there, tell someone, ‘I really love this. I want to do space robotics.’ And maybe that person can help you.”
Alyssa’s current passion is astrobiology—fitting enough, with NASA’s Perseverance rover now on the red planet, hunting for tiny Martian fossils. “Most people hear astrobiology and think aliens. But it’s much more than that. It’s studying the soil samples on Mars, looking for any signs of bacterial life, and studying the atmosphere in general about Mars. Astrobiology is going to be pretty big in the space industry.”
As a bonus, astrobiology is the sort of gig that NASA or SpaceX might find appealing when hiring new astronaut candidates. And that’s a lot of what drives Alyssa: the opportunity to fly into space. “You need a [separate] job to be an astronaut,” she said. “And although there’s a lot of stuff going on in space, astrobiology will be a big part of it.”
Of course, missions such as the current Perseverance rover and its companion helicopter, Ingenuity, are showing how powerful missions driven by AI and robotics can be. But Alyssa thinks humans will always have a role in space exploration. “Mars is so far away from us. It takes 15 minutes for a radio signal to reach the earth. So, if you tell the rover to do something simple, like move two feet, you have to wait 15 minutes, it hears you, it moves, then 15 minutes later you know it moved.
“I’m pretty sure humans can do a year’s work of a rover in an hour, just because we have the instincts to say, ‘Oh, that rock looks interesting, let’s bring that back.’ We don’t need to be told every single command.”
Regardless of what role she plays in space, Alyssa thinks we are on the cusp of important things. “I’m just really excited to see kind of the evolution of space happening. Right now, we have the idea of going back to the moon, and to Mars. And then we have SpaceX doing whatever the heck they want to do, and Blue Origin is another large one, and more countries are getting involved in space. There’s gonna be a lot happening soon.”
For now, Alyssa is focusing on her astrobiology studies at the Florida Institute of Technology, a private research university in Melbourne, Florida. After that, she’s headed to graduate school. Then who knows? Perhaps NASA or SpaceX or another space startup can use a bright young astronaut who has made space her life’s mission. She likes to talk about Pacific Islanders of hundreds or even thousands of years ago who would set sail for parts unknown largely out of sheer curiosity.
“They wanted to explore and they wanted to build something out of that journey. I definitely think space is our next place in terms of doing that. And I want to be part of it.”