Put yourself in the mind of a 20-year-old college sophomore who’s just finished finals. You’re ecstatic, probably exhausted, and still bouncing from all the finals-week caffeine. It’s also the first summer post-pandemic, when everyone’s finally able to leave the house and get up to whatever they want. You probably have some big plans: parties, beach vacations, maybe an international trip? Or what about a deep-sea mission to replicate what it’s like to conduct research in space?
That’s what Alyssa Carson, the 20-year-old who first made headlines as the “youngest astronaut in training” — and the first person to visit every NASA visitor center in existence by the age of 13 — has in her sights for her summer break. She’s coordinating a group of six other women, ranging from a current high school sophomore to scientists with years of research experience, for an expedition that will include scuba diving to simulate space walks and staying as isolated as possible. Carson says they’re dubbing it the Harmonia research expedition. “Harmonia is the daughter of Poseidon,” Carson explains. “We’re doing three weeks at sea as a kind of space analog, pretty much pretending like we’re on a space mission.” They plan to publish their research afterward, and, of course, she’ll be sharing her experience with her more than 483,000 Instagram followers and 115,000 TikTok followers.
The independent project is a collaboration with 69-year-old sailor and adventurer Reid Stowe, who will be handling the sailing part of the trip and who holds the record for the longest sea excursion without stopping or restocking (1,152 days). But that’s hardly the only thing Carson is up to, also juggling studies as an astrobiology major at the Florida Institute of Technology, her internship in Global Space Strategic Partnerships (basically space international relations) at Jacobs Engineering Group in Florida, and her summer space trainings, like a microgravity simulation flight later this month. No big deal.
Carson’s ultimate goal is to become an astronaut and set foot on Mars. She’s been sharing her journey with half a million followers online, an audience of other young people like herself, as well as space enthusiasts and other “science communicators.” As a young woman in an older, male-centered field, Carson is encouraging others like her to realize the expansive opportunities and career paths the space field offers. She wants to make it clear that space isn’t just a childhood dream.
But it can start in childhood, and for Carson it did: She decided she wanted to go to space at just three years old. She witnessed three shuttle launches by the time she was 13, attended every NASA space camp (the first to do so) before the age of 19, and was selected as an ambassador and spokesperson for Mars One, a mission and education campaign to put humans on Mars by 2030. She’s the youngest person (only 16 at the time) to graduate from the Advance Space Academy and the youngest to be accepted and graduate from the Advanced PoSSUM Space Academy, which trains and accredits young people to be astronauts. She’s published a podcast, been highlighted in a TEDTalk series, written a book, and started a foundation to help fund other young people’s dreams of going to space.
Thinking back, Carson can’t pinpoint exactly what started her interest in space at that young age — she tells the story of walking into her father’s room one night, in true kid fashion, to tell him she was going to be an astronaut. It could have started with the beloved children’s show (and current social media love child) The Backyardigans, in which four animal friends share imaginary adventures in their backyards. “I had a poster of one of their ‘Mission to Mars’ episodes,” Carson recalls. “No one in my family has any sort of background in space or science, really. So it was definitely out of the blue for me to be talking about it.”
What was initially seen as a childlike dream turned into an all-consuming goal. With the support of her father, Carson enrolled in her first space camp at seven years old and eventually attended an international immersion school to broaden her studies. She also picked up three more languages, Spanish, French, and Russian, which would come in handy during both her international relations internship and her worldwide public speaking engagements. She often missed her classes for space training, but made it work.
The pandemic threw off Carson’s jam-packed summers and space training plans for a bit. And, while previously she’d mostly shared her experiences, accomplishments, and space lessons to followers on her Instagram @nasablueberry, Carson was pulled (along with the rest of us) into the world of TikTok to fill her time away from training and public speaking. “I was pretty much bored and didn’t have too much else to do. It was fun to be able to teach people in that way on TikTok.” She’s taken a break from TikTok while she’s been back in school, but plans to start posting more frequently again.
Like many other space and science educators using social media, Carson’s use of viral trends to make lessons more interesting caught people’s attention mid-pandemic, with her content reaching peak views in May and June of last year. Her other videos about general space history and just pure fun facts (like how to go to the bathroom in space) also accumulated millions of views.
But her videos and Instagram posts are more than just fun. They showcase the need for diversity in the space field, whether that’s by highlighting famous women in the industry or calling for more representation of minority groups in STEM fields.
She also wants to clear up misconceptions with her videos. “I definitely saw a gap between what’s actually happening in space and what the general public thinks is happening in space,” Carson said. She reflects on how many people asked her what her future plans were now that “NASA is closed” (a misconception after the agency retired a few space programs) or asking how space research has any impact on our day-to-day lives. “I think that space is very hard to relate to for every person— we’re not very connected to it. You can go your whole life never thinking about space or it affecting you,” Carson says.
This thinking results in two things: making careers in the space field feel like far-reaching dreams, especially for young people, women, and people of color, and implying that space research is superfluous. “It’s like when people say, ‘Why go to Mars when we have so many problems here on earth?’ The connection between space and earth is huge… We have so many technologies, so many simple devices that we are able to use every day, like whether it’s handheld vacuums or headphones,’ she explains. Carson even addressed this frequently asked question in one of her TikTok videos, explaining to a commenter that space research creates new technologies, jobs, and has a much bigger impact than many realize.
Not everyone can go to space. But Carson hopes that her online content is encouraging young people to entertain the idea that space is relevant, accessible, and a forum for creative thinking. “It’s just an avenue to really push us outside of our normal thinking. So we can come up with new things because we’re thinking about the problem in a different way,” she says.
“I don’t think I’m going to ever be done learning, because it’s never-ending.”
The message is reaching more and more people as she continues her path as a public speaker and prepares to take her women-led team out to sea. “Through Instagram and a lot of platforms, I was able to talk to and connect with kids from all over the world and be able to teach them the things I’ve learned about space and science,” Carson says. “Space and science is always changing… We are about to have an explosion of stuff happening in space… I don’t think I’m going to ever be done learning, because it’s never-ending.” She wants to make sure people her age don’t miss out on a thing.
Last weekend, Carson got to fulfill another one of her dreams and fly with the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds — fighter pilot jets that reach mind-boggling speeds. Carson has already received her private pilot’s license and is considering more flying training, but the Thunderbirds offered her the closest she’s gotten to feeling what it’s like to be shot into space, sending her through the air at 575 miles per hour. While it was physically exhausting, Carson said it was also one of the coolest things she’s ever done.
And it reiterated a larger point she hopes to make through all of her content: There is not one single way to get to space. Carson says joining the U.S. Air Force is a traditional path for many astronauts — more than half of the current space-bound astronauts are active military members — and she got to share that option with her followers. But there are many more paths. “There’s so many unique careers you can go into, you don’t even have to be good at math and science to work in space. There’s other people who are just as important… journalists, psychologists, spacesuit designers,” she says. “I want to teach kids that it is a reasonable dream to go after” — however they do it — “so space is just less intimidating.”