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The concept of “outer space” is almost too gigantic and esoteric for many of us to comprehend, conjuring up images of sci-fi blockbusters and impossible missions altogether untethered from our everyday lives. But Alyssa Carson, the 21-year-old aspiring astronaut, would like to remind us that space and Earth are, in fact, very connected. If you’ve ever used a handheld vacuum, you’ve interacted with technology developed for space exploration, she notes.

“We forget how much technology we have and we use everyday that was either invented by the space industry or for the space industry in some way,” Carson says over a call from her home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where her room is filled with NASA and space paraphernalia. “Space really pushes us to think outside the box. We're all of a sudden challenged with problems that we would never be challenged with down here on Earth.” That includes sucking crumbs out of your couch cushions; Black & Decker originally developed the technology used in the handheld DustBuster for a lunar drill for NASA’s moon exploration.

Carson has had an obsession with space since early childhood. Only for her, the fantasy of becoming an astronaut has manifested into not just wearing a spacesuit on Halloween, but led to her speaking on NASA panels as a pre-teen and attending Space Camps around the world. Now, as she heads to her senior year at Florida Institute of Technology as an astrobiology major, Carson has amassed a sizable media presence as well, with over half a million followers on Instagram and campaigns for Gap and op-eds 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 cultivate her platform. On her Instagram, she shares her work in her college’s research lab in an attempt to demystify what studying for a STEM profession actually looks like, and speaks to the diversity of professions available in space exploration.

“When I'm talking to kids, I love to throw out, if space tourism continues to advance, you guys could be a space flight attendant. Why can't that be a thing? Or maybe designing spacesuits,” she says. “Psychology is huge within the space industry in terms of, how does an astronaut deal with being away from people or being away in space for so long? Or how do we make the food that goes to space? Someone has to figure out, can I send an apple to space?”

Those paths are more real now, as even in the relatively short time span since Carson found her love of space through an episode of Nickelodeon's The Backyardigans, the space industry has evolved immensely. The rise of private aerospace companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have propelled technology forward beyond what government-backed programs can do on their own and helped the concept of space trickle down into more tangible ideas. “The little things that are like, ‘Oh my gosh, Pete Davidson might go to space. Let's talk about it.’ Those little tidbits of pop culture play a really important role,” she says.

It’d be easy to dismiss the trivialities of the likes of Davidson going on a joyride to space as unconnected from serious scientific probes, but Carson says one feeds the other. “Government space relies a lot on public interest. One of the big reasons why we actually went to the moon was because everyone was watching,” she says. “And I've always said we aren't really going to actually get to Mars if the public doesn't want to see us go to Mars.”

Reaching sub-orbital space, where tourist flights like those run by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin travel to, is relatively easy with our current technology, Carson notes. Her interest is in deep space exploration, which includes potential missions to Mars, and more specifically researching life on Mars.

“We obviously know there's no little green man walking on Mars,” she says. “But we definitely have hopes of some bacteria possibly living there.”

The many who hold out hopes of discovering real-life E.T. may choose not to believe that the reality of life on Mars is rather mundane, and there is perhaps little scientists can do to dissuade them of their beliefs. But one of the biggest criticisms of space exploration Carson ruffles up against is the idea that it is funneling away valuable resources from actual problems here on Earth. She insists the two are far from mutually exclusive.

“If the population continues to rise, we want to have a second planet. Maybe we're living on both or having more resources, even in just figuring out how we live on Mars, period. Mars' atmosphere is pretty much all carbon dioxide,” Carson says. “So if we are looking at living on Mars, we have to have a solution of cleaning up Mars' atmosphere. By doing that we could clean up our own atmosphere at the same time using that same technology.”

It’s not just technology we can bring back from space, but a greater social purpose as well. “Astronauts come back from seeing the planet, you see how fragile the atmosphere is. There's no borders in space,” she says.

There are no borders in space, but there still are on Earth. Even while members of Gen Z are often lauded for their progressive breakdowns of gender norms, Carson still finds relatively few female peers among her astrobiology program at Florida Tech, and the girls she found herself surrounded by at Space Camp have diminished in numbers as she goes further down a professional STEM career path.

“When I first got to college, it was definitely a little bit of a shock,” Carson says. Florida Tech’s enrollment for Fall 2020 enrollment was made up of 69 percent male students and 31 percent female students, according to U.S. News’ college rankings. It took her over a year to find another female astrobiology major, but slowly she is finding more women cohorts. “I luckily have a small little herd of them now. Most of them are younger than me, so the future years are definitely getting more traction and more girls in them.”

But the lingering lack of gender parity, she believes, is due to the lack of visibility in what many STEM professions look like on a day-to-day basis. Carson wants more young people to know that being an “astronaut” actually encompasses a huge variety of professions, not just the prototypical image of Buzz Aldrin in a NASA suit. Space exploration requires many skills and disciplines, from pilots to engineers to physicists and beyond, and that means we need a more diverse pool of people to fill those roles.

Carson is still very much still determining what her journey will look like, however; as she enters her senior year of college, she’ll begin looking at master’s programs and from there explore career opportunities at the likes of NASA or SpaceX, and, perhaps one day, be one of those first people to explore life on Mars. But the future of space for herself and others is still wide open.

“We're starting to see younger people go to space. We're starting to see people from many different countries go to space, so much more inclusivity of space,” she says. “One of my big hopes for the future of space is that going to space is going to be just as normal as flying an airplane, that being able to experience space is going to be part of an everyday life, because it is always there. It is super connected to us.”

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