As a 3-year-old, Alyssa Carson told her family she would land on Mars one day.
At 5, she memorized a map of the planet tacked to her bedroom wall. And at 7 she attended the first of seven sessions of Space Camp.
Now, at 11, she plans to become a certified scuba diver in a year because water is the nearest thing on Earth to zero gravity. And in three years she will begin to earn her pilot’s license because all astronauts need to know how to pilot aircraft.
“I tell everybody the next 20 years of her life are planned,” said her father, Bert Carson. “(Planned) by her in collaboration with me — and NASA.”
A fifth-grade student with long brown hair and a ready grin, Alyssa is committed to becoming an astronaut. She has already spent several years training to reach Mars in the 2030s, when, optimistically, the first mission to the Red Planet will launch.
Most children try on different worlds and careers from day to day, but not Alyssa.
“At 3, you don’t really take them seriously,” said Bert Carson, owner of the Pelican Broadcasting Network. “Every kid wants to be a policeman, a fireman, an astronaut.”
Bert Carson began to understand how determined Alyssa was when he found her in her room at 5 studying where a Mars capsule would attempt to land in 25 years.
“Baby, what are you doing?” he asked.
“She already knew how they were going to land with this balloon-type thing around the capsule and bounce,” he said. “She told me I needed to start studying the Mars map now so that ‘If we bounce off course, I won’t be lost.’”
After that, he bought into her dreams. When Alyssa turned 7, they attended a parent-child Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., together, and she won The Right Stuff Award, given to a “trainee” — as the camp calls its participants — who excels in leadership and teamwork.
They returned to the camp again, and he made her complete most of the tasks without his help to gauge whether she could return alone. Since then she has returned twice a year.
“She has been in the heart and soul of this place,” said Tim Hall, a spokesman for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which runs the camp. “She has been very serious and very intense, and we do not take that lightly.”
At camp, Alyssa stands out, but not as a know-it-all or braggart, said Amee Halbach, Alyssa’s camp counselor two summers ago.
“She was never the type to show off,” Halbach said by phone from Huntsville. “She was always willing to let the other kids shine.”
Although Alyssa had been at camp multiple times, she treated each activity with wonder and excitement, Halbach said.
Hall said Alyssa has become a go-to spokeswoman for the camp. Two years ago she was interviewed by ITV, a British television network, and this summer she spoke to producers with the Travel Channel for an upcoming program.
“She’s articulate, and she is absolutely determined,” Hall said.
Outside of her astronaut preparation, Alyssa attends Baton Rouge International School, where she learns multiple languages and studies ballet and piano. She also finds time to play in soccer leagues with friends.
This past summer, representatives of Space Camp Turkey met Alyssa and offered her a scholarship to attend their camp in Izmir, Turkey. She and her father spent two weeks there — one traveling and the other at camp with children from Italy, Bulgaria, Poland and other nations. At camp’s end Alyssa traded keepsakes with the other campers. She gave them tiny plastic alligators, and she received little bottles of perfume and a multicolored bracelet from Jordan that she wears often.
Each week of Space Camp in Huntsville focuses on science, robotics or aviation. Alyssa has done every track twice except aviation. She enjoys science the most and has also attended the Sally Ride Science Camp at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
“I guess I just mainly enjoy experimenting,” she said. “I enjoy figuring it out, solving a problem.”
Alyssa and Bert Carson can be seen any place connected with space travel. They watched three space shuttles blast off before NASA ended the shuttle program. They have also met astronauts who became Alyssa’s heroes, including Charlie Duke, the 10th man on the moon, and Sandra Magnus, who spent four months in the International Space Station.
Magnus told Alyssa she decided to become an astronaut at age 9.
“That was a big inspiration that someone started young and actually accomplished this, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Alyssa said. “Basically all astronauts are my heroes because they’ve accomplished what I hope to do.”
A conversation with William Parsons, the former director of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., led them to place scuba diving and pilot training on Alyssa’s schedule.
But it’s the thought of Mars that has kept Alyssa focused on her goal from an early age.
“I was really interested back then that no one’s ever been there, and it’s still a mystery about what you might find,” she said.
Halbach, her former counselor, said she believes Alyssa can realize her goal.
“Not only does she want it for herself, she has the most amazing dad who is going to do whatever it takes to get her to where she wants to go,” she said.
Getting to the Red Planet — 35.8 million miles away at its closest orbit — will take “the whole world,” Bert Carson said, so he and Alyssa want to meet everyone with a plan to explore Mars. Aside from NASA, they have met representatives of Mars One, a Dutch company that plans to colonize the planet, with astronauts spending two-year stretches there.
Such a prospect may frighten some, but to Alyssa, it sounds like her dream.
It appeals to what her father calls “the explorer in her.”
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