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The concept of “outer space” is almost too gigantic and esoteric for many of us to fathom, conjuring images of blockbuster sci-fi movies and completely unrestricted impossible missions from our everyday lives. But 21-year-old aspiring astronaut Alyssa Carson would like to remind us that space and Earth are, in fact, very interconnected. I noticed that if you’ve ever used a handheld vacuum cleaner, you’ve interacted with technology developed for space exploration.
Carson says on a call from her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where her room is filled with NASA and space tools. “Space really forces us to think outside the box. All of a sudden we are challenged with problems we would never have here on Earth.” This includes pulling crumbs from the couch cushions; Black & Decker originally developed the technology used in the handheld DustBuster to conduct NASA’s lunar exploration drills.
Carson had an obsession with space since early childhood. For just her, the fantasy of becoming an astronaut manifested itself not only in wearing a spacesuit for Halloween, but led to her speaking on NASA panels as a pre-teen and attending space camps around the world. Now, heading into her senior year at Florida Institute of Technology as an astrobiology major, Carson has amassed a huge media presence as well, with over half a million followers on Instagram and campaigns for Gap and editorials for Teen Vogue under her belt.
Inspiring other young people to see an interest in space as a viable career path is part of what motivates Carson to develop her platform. On her Instagram, she shares her work in her college’s research lab in an effort to demystify what a STEM career really looks like, and talks about the diversity of careers available in space exploration.
“When I talk to the kids, I like to get away with that, if space tourism continues to advance, you could be space flight attendants. Why isn’t that a thing? Or maybe designing spacesuits,” she says. “Psychology is huge in the space industry in terms of how an astronaut deals with getting away from people or staying out in space for a long time? Or how do we make food that goes into space? Someone has to find out, can I send an apple into space?”
Those paths are more realistic now that, even in the relatively short period of time since Carson found her love of space through an episode of Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans, the space industry has evolved dramatically. The rise of private airlines such as SpaceX and Blue Origin has pushed the technology forward beyond what government-backed programs alone could do and helped move the concept of space into more realistic ideas. “The little things that are like, ‘Oh my God, Pete Davidson might go into space.'” Let’s talk about it. These little pop culture tidbits play a really important role.”
It would be easy to dismiss the trivialities of the Davidsons going on a trip to space as unrelated to serious scientific probes, but Carson says one feeds the other. Government space depends a lot on the public interest. “One of the main reasons we went to the moon was because everyone was watching,” she says. “And I’ve always said we won’t actually get to Mars if the public doesn’t want to see us go to Mars.”
Carson notes that getting into sub-orbital space, where cruise flights like those operated by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin travel, is relatively easy thanks to our current technology. Her interest is deep space exploration, which includes potential missions to Mars, and more specifically the search for life on Mars.
“Obviously we know there is no little green man walking on Mars,” she says. “But we certainly hope some bacteria live there.”
Many who pin their hopes on discovering real-world alien life may choose not to believe that the reality of life on Mars is somewhat ordinary, and there probably isn’t much that scientists can do to dissuade them from their beliefs. But one of the biggest criticisms of space exploration that Carson raises is the notion that he’s taking away valuable resources from actual problems here on Earth. She insists that the two are not mutually exclusive.
“If the population keeps going up, we want a second planet. Maybe we live on both or have more resources, even just figuring out how to live on Mars, period. The atmosphere of Mars is pretty much carbon dioxide,” Carson says. “So if we are looking to live on Mars, we must have a solution to clean up the Martian atmosphere. By doing this, we can clean up our own atmosphere at the same time using the same technology.”
It is not just a technology that we can retrieve from space, it is also a larger social goal. “The astronauts come back from seeing the planet, you see how fragile the atmosphere is. There are no limits in space,” she says.
There are no boundaries in space, but they are still there on Earth. Although members of Gen Z are often praised for their gradual breakdowns of gender norms, Carson still found relatively few peers among her astrobiology program at Florida Tech, and the numbers of girls she found surrounded by Space Camp dwindled during Her transition further down a professional career path in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“When I first got into college, it was definitely a little shock,” Carson says. Florida Tech’s Fall 2020 enrollment was 69 percent male and 31 percent female, according to US News rankings. It took her over a year to find another astrobiology major, but she’s slowly starting to find more women’s groups. “Fortunately I have a small herd of them now. Most of them are younger than me, so the coming years will definitely have more cuteness and more girls in them.”
But she believes that the persistent lack of gender parity is due to a lack of visibility into what many STEM professions look like on a daily basis. Carson wants more young people to know that being an “astronaut” actually includes a wide range of careers, not just the typical image of Buzz Aldrin in a NASA suit. Space exploration requires many skills and disciplines, from pilots to engineers to physicists and more, and that means we need a more diverse group of people to fill these roles.
However, Carson still largely determines what her ride will look like; As she enters her final year of college, she will begin to look into master’s programs and from there explore career opportunities at the likes of NASA or SpaceX, and perhaps one day, she will be one of the first people to discover life on Mars. But the future of space for herself and others remains wide open.
“We’re starting to see young people go into space. We’re starting to see people from many different countries go into space, and more inclusiveness of space,” she says. “One of my big hopes for the future of space is that going into space will be just as natural as flying in an airplane, and that being able to experience space will be part of everyday life, because it’s always been there. It’s very connected to us.”
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