This story was published in partnership with Ulyces.co.
The young woman seated on the human centrifuge smiles and gives the technician the signal. She clings firmly to the machine’s handles as it begins to spin faster and faster, knocking the nacelle in all directions. She hardly has time to catch her breath once this particular experiment – which is meant to reproduce space travel’s extreme conditions – is over. A few moments later, she’s off to the next exercise, handling a flight simulator. “Blueberry,” as the codename written on her spacesuit reads, commands the dashboard with infinite concentration.
This astronaut in training is Alyssa Carson. She may be 17, but her space training program at the Colorado Springs PoSSUM Academy is worthy of that of an experienced NASA member. For long hours, the young woman hops from one exercise to the next in microgravity, deepsea diving and lab sample analyses. It’s a frenetic pace, but she’s used to it now, having started out at 15.
Like many American teenagers, Alyssa Carson grew up hearing about NASA’s exploits and its dreams of conquering space. But to this ambitious teen, there is no doubt that this dream can become reality, and that she will be one of the first humans to tread on Mars – and embark on the greatest space adventure of her generation.
Hammond, Louisiana, 2003. Some 70 kilometers outside Baton Rouge, in a residential neighborhood lined with oak trees, a little girl with brown hair watches cartoons on the living room TV. Her father, Bert Carson, works next to her. Suddenly, a small voice pulls him out of his thoughts: “Dad, have humans ever been to Mars?” On the screen behind Alyssa, three spacesuits happily dance on the red planet. The young child looks at her father, waiting for his answer with intense curiosity.
Alyssa Carson was only three years old back then. Her father, Bert, couldn’t know that particular curiosity would mark a turning point in the girl’s life. “My dad thought it was a kid’s dream, that I would get over it,” she says with a smile. But her passion only grew. Alyssa spent long hours in her room plunging into space exploration books and lining her walls with maps of the red planet. At her insistence, her father enrolled her at her first Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, when she was only seven years old. “It was like a waking dream,” she recalls. With dozens of other children her age, all dressed in little blue suits, she marveled at the model spaceships and epic tales of astronauts.
The “Mars Generation” – so-named by one of its most famous members, Abby the Astronaut – grew up in these space camps. They were kids inspired by NASA’s adventures. They thought the future of exploration belonged to them. “We saw the Apollo era, the American Space Shuttle, now we are ready to enter the Orion era,” writes Abby, whose real name is Abigail Harrison. “My generation, the Mars Generation, will make it a reality.” Now that they’re teenagers, these enthusiasts gather in large training centers. “These young people have the same passion that animated us when we watched the first rocket launch,” says NASA astronaut Don Thomas.
But Alyssa Carson, Abigail Harrison and their contemporaries have even bigger dreams than their elders. Their future will be 76 million kilometers away from Earth, on Martian soil. “Mars will be the greatest adventure of all time,” Elon Musk, the famous entrepreneur and billionaire behind a Martian settlement project, said three years ago. And today, that crazy dream is closer than ever to becoming reality. “Like the moon mission before us, Mars is becoming a reality,” said Jason Reimuller, executive director of the PoSSUM project.
Mars may have still been a distant dream at the beginning of the XXI century, but now, technological progress makes it possible to envisage establishing a colony by 2030. International projects like HI-SEAS IV, in which the French astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux participates, have been experimenting with the life conditions astronauts will find on Mars for the past few years. Emerging space powers like the United Arab Emirates also launched massive recruitment projects last February, also hoping to take part in Martian colonization. Finally, private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, Amazon CEO’s own firm, have been preparing for a long time to conquer our neighbor.
The most ambitious advocates of space conquest dedicate their lives to space training. Between the ages of 8 and 15, Alyssa Carson climbed the ranks at Space Camps, signing up at Huntsville 18 times and even attending rocket launches at three US bases. After traveling to Izmir, Turkey, and Laval, Canada, she became the only person to visit NASA’s three Space Camps. “It’s Sara Magnus, a NASA astronaut, who made me want to fulfill my dream and encouraged me to never give up,” she says. The former ISS engineer, however, warned the girl: to hope to be among the first to go to Mars, she would have to work very hard.
Astronauts in training
A trainer at the PoSSUM Academy gently places a helmet on Alyssa’s head. In this suborbital research center of the upper mesosphere, “Blueberry” has been chosen to test new spacesuits, which may be worn by future astronauts when they depart our planet. Solemnly, she dons the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, astronaut’s mythical white equipment, which allowed Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon half a century ago. Alyssa already imagines reiterating the feat amid the craters and valleys of the red planet, planting the American flag while it’s live streamed before the eyes of the whole world.
“We have set a clear goal for the next chapter in America’s history in space: send humans to Mars in the 2030s and bring them back to Earth safely,” Barack Obama said without hesitation in October 2016, to thunderous applause. For the young Mars Generation, it sounded like a dream come true. In 2033, the conditions for the mission would be ideal: solar radiation would be weaker than ever and a rare proximity between the two planets would allow them to set the course to Mars. Not to mention that these teenagers would then be in their thirties: the ideal age to be selected by NASA.
But dreams alone won’t cut it: Only 12 of the tens of thousands of candidates pining for Mars will be selected. Despite their growing notoriety, young people like Alyssa Carson or Abigail Harrison have no guarantee of being part of this handful of pioneers. For this reason, the most ambitious have been doubling down on their training, hoping to shine in front of NASA’s dreaded selection committees. An Olympic physique, a steely intellect and brilliant academics are just the baseline: while young people like Alyssa are on the right track, they still have a long way to go.
Steadfast, the teenager takes on simulations in microgravity, high altitude flight and deepsea diving. By joining the PoSSUM Academy’s advanced program, “Blueberry” is already a step ahead of the competition. “Normally they only accept people with a bachelor’s, a master’s or doctorate, but they gave me a chance,” she says. Thanks to this institute, she’s already received a certificate that allows her to operate suborbital flights. “She gives herself the means to take up real challenges,” says Jason Reimuller, the academy’s director. “She recently took part in a night flight over Canada. She is even able to conduct research, even though she is still in high school.”
By dedicating their lives to this demanding training, young people like Carson are anomalies in their worlds. In Baton Rouge, the young woman is regularly absent from high school for training sessions, sometimes at the other end of the country. “The training is very exciting and I’m learning a lot, but it’s also really difficult,” she says. And beyond hours spent training, this is a real financial investment: a week of learning at the PoSSUM Academy, for example, is more than €3,500. Space conquest is not for everyone.
“My friends think I’m crazy sometimes,” she laughs. Indeed, it’s difficult to live a normal teenage life when your passion borders on obsession. Sitting in her teenage room surrounded by her books, she shrugs and smiles, “I try to find the right balance between training and school, and I can still be a normal teenager.” On weekends, when she’s not in a flight simulator, she tries to escape with her friends, to play sports or music, even if her big project never really leaves her mind.
While waiting to apply to NASA in a few years, Alyssa has no plans to slow down. After graduating from the International High School of Baton Rouge, the young woman plans to study astrobiology at the Florida Institute of Technology. “When we go to Mars, we won’t know what we are going to land on. With this course, I hope to be as competent and versatile as possible,” she explains. She’s following in the footsteps of Abigail Harrison, a student at the prestigious Wellesley College in Boston who worked at a NASA lab at just 21 years old. She’ll do everything possible to make sure she is one of the chosen 12.
Between the craters of the Red Planet, the robot Curiosity forges on, on its lonesome. For six years now, it has been providing humans some of the secrets contained in the fragments of Mars. Its reddish landscape stretches as far as the eye can see, hilly and pierced with thousand-year-old reliefs. We have already seen videos in computer graphics showing the planet “terraformed,” or transformed to be habitable, green and covered with camps worthy of a sci-fi film. “We still have a long way to go to make it a reality,” says Abigail Harrison. “But I believe in a March mission in the 2030s, if the United States really gets involved.”
Nine months of space travel, a year and a half in orbit around Mars, then nine months again to return to Earth: this is the first exciting mission planned by NASA for 2033. It could be the first in a long series to transform the red planet into humans’ new playground. The idea of being the first person to land on Mars excites Abigail as much as it terrifies her. “Space travel is dangerous. They push against our barriers, and those of the human race, so fear is natural,” she says. “But when I think of all the benefits of space travel, they far outweigh their disadvantages.”
NASA’s Journey to Mars program, which plans to send humans into space with the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft, is still a fragile dream. Since the White Houses’ first statements in the 1960s, the Mars exploration program has continued to be rejected. The problem: technology, but also the divergent visions of successive US presidents. “In the US, science funding is very vulnerable to political fluctuations,” says Jason Reimuller. And even though Donald Trump has positioned himself in favor of NASA’s program, his reduction of funds allocated to science casts doubt.
For Alyssa Carson, who has been training for 15 years to live this dream, postponing the program – or worse, getting rejected – is simply out of question. “I do not see myself doing any other job besides this one, it’s as simple as that,” she says. Bert Carson, her father, thinks the planets have aligned in her favor. And yet, Alyssa has not been officially supported by the US Space Agency, so she’s still going at it on her own.
Abigail Harrison decided to be a realist. “My chances of going all the way are slim, but I continue to work hard,” she admits. In 2015,during her first year at the Wellesley College, she decided to start her own association, The Mars Generation. “I want to give people the desire to be interested in space exploration,” says the 21 year old, who wants to encourage young people and girls especially to get involved in science programs. “My first flight instructor told me that I would not want to go to space in 20 years because I would want to have children. So I try to convey the message that you have to believe in yourself, no matter who you are.”
Abby may not have to give up her dreams of exploration at all. In recent years, more and more competing missions are emerging in parallel with NASA’s. For his daughter to reach her goal, Bert Carson mentions that she might as well try to join SpaceX, which is well underway since the spectacular launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket. “Blueberry” has also become an ambassador for the Mars One mission, a competing project that plans to establish a human colony on Mars by 2030.
Until then, Carson wants to continue working on her dream and that of a whole generation. “It is vital to continue to explore space, otherwise the human species will eventually die out like dinosaurs. Mars will be our second Earth,” she says with conviction. Behind her glimmers a picture of the bright red star. It’s already dreaming of becoming green and blue.