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Space travel: meet the teenager who could be the first person to stand on Mars

Forget “one giant step for man”, the first person to step on Mars could be a woman – Alyssa Carson. The 18-year-old, who is one of the world’s youngest astronauts-in-training, speaks to Stylist about challenging a male-dominated industry, sleeping in space, and whether she’ll be able to get WiFi on Mars.

Fifty years ago, history was made when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first and second men to walk on the moon. Millions of people around the world watched blurry footage of the pair stepping across the rocky terrain, while Armstrong’s words “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, transmitted millions of miles back to earth, quickly became the stuff of legend.

Now, history is set to be made yet again, with humans anticipated to land on Mars for the first time within the next decade. But all being well, it won’t be a man we watch make those first tentative steps in his space suit – rather, it will be a woman.

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That woman could well be astronaut Alyssa Carson, an 18-year-old from Louisiana who has dreamed of going to Mars since the age of three – and has spent the last 15 years making solid plans to turn that dream into a reality.

Carson is the world’s youngest astronauts in training, and is the only person to have completed the NASA passport programme, having visited all 14 NASA sites across nine states and attended all three of NASA’s global space camps. Her passion and dedication for space travel are so clear that in 2013, NASA invited her to discuss future missions to Mars as part of the MER (Mars Exploration Rover) 10 panel in Washington. She was just 12 years old at the time.

mars mission astronaut alyssa carson
Mars mission: astronaut Alyssa Carson has wanted to go to Mars since she was three years old.

So what is it about the red planet that appeals to Carson?

“When I was little I realised that no one had ever been to Mars before, and I was really curious about what was out there,” Carson tells Stylist. “It fascinates me – it’s the next planet in the solar system that we really have the technology to be able to travel to. I would love to be one of the first scientists to look for signs of exterior life and study the atmosphere and soil to really see what we can do with Mars.”

Space travel to Mars made the headlines a few years ago when the Mars One mission launched, with ambitious plans to send humans to colonise the planet. The only catch? Those humans would never return to Earth. Carson was an ambassador for Mars One, but stresses that she wasn’t a candidate for the project. Instead, her mission will be a round trip – although a long one.

“It will take about six months to get to Mars, depending on the orbit – the distance from the Earth depends on where we’re circling the sun,” she explains. “We would then live on Mars for around 20 months, and it would take around nine months to get back. So it’s a pretty lengthy mission!”

mars mission alyssa carson President of Chile Sebastián Piñera
Mars mission: Alyssa Carson meets with the President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera

A 15-month round trip might sound like a nightmare to anyone who dreads a mere 12-hour long haul flight, but Carson hopes that she won’t be too cramped for her year and a bit of space travel. She envisions lifting off from earth in a capsule that could then attach to a structure that is already in space, creating a mini international space system for her and her colleagues (she estimates that she will travel out with five other astronauts).

As for the 20 months that she would spend on Mars, Carson’s main role would be in scientific research, gathering and analysing samples to bring back to Earth. She is also keen to learn more about how much water there is on Mars, as the Mars Exploration Rover has already found ice, steam and liquid water. The presence of water indicates that humans could one day live on Mars – and even that there could be external life on the planet right now. 

So what would Carson do if she does find life on Mars? Does she have any fears about her mission to Mars, and what would she miss the most about Earth while she’s there? What would she eat and drink, and would she have WiFi…?

As Carson designs the world’s first space suitcase with Horizn Studios, Stylist chats to the astronaut to answer all of these burning questions, and more.

mars mission alyssa carson horizn case
Mars mission: Alyssa Carson with the space travel Horizn suitcase she has designed.

Space exploration is a very male-dominated industry. Has that been challenging?

There are more male astronauts than female because in the early days of space travel it was typically all male, but now the selection process is half male, half female. It’s so awesome to see more female astronauts coming into the space programme. But there are tens of thousands of people that work hard on a mission, from the engineers and the rocket testers, to the people that put the food together. We need to get more women working across all of those fields, in all sorts of STEM careers

What would you eat and drink in space? 

In space most of the food is similar to what we eat here on earth. There are only a few things we can’t bring, such as bread because of the crumbs. On the mission we will be on a schedule and eat similarly to here [on Earth]. There are still snacks and drinks, whatever you want.

Where would you sleep, and how?

Either in sleeping bags or small rooms with a sleeping bag on a wall. However, there are arm holes.

How many items of clothing will you take for such a long trip? Can you wash clothes in space? Do you wear the same spacesuit?

Usually in space most of the clothes are just thrown away. However for the Mars mission there will need to be a bit more reusability – for example, spacesuits are reused.

Working with Horizn Studios has been really exciting, as we’re looking at the future of space tourism! It’s fascinating to think that one day we’ll be holidaying in space. As innovation makes this dream a reality, we’re looking towards the practicalities like packing for such a venture. I’ve worked with them to explore the luggage we might need, and the useful features it needs to have.

What entertainment would you have on Mars? Books, music, Netflix?!

I love Netflix and all the shows on there. I really like baking shows and Netflix originals like Stranger Things

What happens if you get ill? How do you get rid of rubbish or do you recycle/reuse everything?

We will have a medical officer and everyone will be certified medically. Most things will be reused but some things will be thrown out. We will bring as much as we can for all situations that we can think of. 

How would you shower/bathe? Do you need to wear deodorant in space?

There are no showers, just baby wipes and baby shampoo. There are also water squirters to help wash anything out.

How do you go to the bathroom in space?

There are two systems, the target and Mr Thirsty. The target is for number two which looks like a traditional toilet but has a vacuum to suck everything away. Mr Thirsty is more like a tube and each astronaut has their own cup. Everything is sucked away to be reused in the purification system. 

What will you miss the most about life on Earth when you’re in space?

I will miss my family and friends the most of course, but I will also miss the nature feel of the earth, such as the trees and oceans.

How would you communicate with people back home? How often will you be able to do this?

There is WiFi on Mars. We will be able to talk to our families and mission control at home. However, there will be a time delay between messages. I’m imagining and longing for a time when we can just pick up the phone and video call our family and friends to show them the incredible place we’re in.

How long are you likely to be able to walk around on Mars before having to go back into the space craft? What kind of surface are you expecting?

Currently space walks can last around seven to eight hours before we have to go back inside. It all depends on what experiments we will be conducting. We are expecting Mars to have soil with iron, and that it will be fairly thin.

Do you expect to find life on Mars? If so, what form do you think this will take?

I think that if there is any it will be bacterial life. There is liquid water, ice, and steam on Mars so it’s possible! It’s a hugely exciting time for space travel, and whether there’s life on Mars or not, the possibility that we’ll be able to travel there thanks to the leaps and bounds we’re making in technology and innovation is amazing. That’s why I’ve helped Horizn with this project, to look at how we can make space tourism seamless in the most practical sense.

Would you ever consider permanently relocating to Mars?

I would consider it if it was the only option. However, I think that the first missions will want to bring back soil and rocks for further experimenting. 

What would be your message to other young girls who want to follow in your footsteps?

I would tell any girl to start pursuing their dream from an early age, whether they’re interested in becoming an astronaut or having a career in STEM or maybe in something completely different. I would never have thought I’d be where I am today, but it’s so important to talk about your dreams and start looking into them as soon as you can. Never give up on them, and never think they’re too crazy.

At three years old, saying I wanted to be an astronaut and travel to Mars was the craziest thing I could say. But now it’s becoming more and more of a reality, which is amazing.

Alyssa Carson teamed up with Horizn Studios to create Horizn ONE, the world’s first luggage for space travel. You can find out more here.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Images: Horizn Studios, Getty

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