How This 20-Year-Old Is Training to Become the First Person to Land on Mars

Alyssa Carson talks mental health, women in STEM, and studying to be an astronaut.

Sundays are a day to recharge and reset by hanging with friends, turning off your phone, bathing for hours on end, or doing whatever else works for you. In this column (in conjunction with our Instagram Self-Care Sunday series), we ask editors, experts, influencers, writers, and more what a perfect self-care Sunday means to them, from tending to their mental and physical health to connecting with their community to indulging in personal joys. We want to know why Sundays are important and how people enjoy them, from morning to night.

Ever since Alyssa Carson, the world’s youngest astronaut-in-training, was little, she’s had an interest in space. But it wasn’t until she went to space camp that she realized exactly what she wanted to do. “That really gave me all the information I’ve been wanting to learn about space—it was all there in front of me. I was able to model rockets and see what life-size rockets look like. And I was really immersed in the experience,” the now 20-year-old tells HelloGiggles.

For the past several years, Carson has been building up her résumé to be able to apply for the astronaut selection process that occurs at NASA. For Carson, that means studying astrobiology, taking extracurriculars, being involved in real research, and testing spacesuits. Her goal? She wants to become a research scientist and the first person to land on Mars.

“The interesting thing about wanting to be an astronaut is that there’s no one way to do it,” she says. While Carson explains that you can’t really major as an astronaut in college and will need to have another job to support yourself, there are specialized schools you can attend to begin training before heading to NASA. Carson went to the Advanced PoSSUM (Project Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) Space Academy, which she recently graduated from as the youngest person ever to do so. And due to her out-of-this-world achievements, she recently joined Olay’s #FaceTheSTEMGap squad to help launch the limited-edition Face The STEM Gap jar of the Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream.

For this week’s Self-Care Sunday, we spoke to Carson to learn more about her road to becoming an astronaut, her go-to self-care rituals, and what she wants people to do to support women in STEM.

Mental Health

HelloGiggles (HG): How has your relationship with being in STEM and training as an astronaut impacted your mental health?

Alyssa Carson (AC): In terms of the mental side of space, I’ve been able to really connect to a lot of situations that happen here on Earth. I think being an astronaut is really similar to being in the military in terms of leaving your friends and family for so long, and then coming back to them. And then, of course, balancing my own life and keeping up with everything, whether that’s Facebook, school, any internships or, you know, having a normal social life. Time management has become a really important part of my life in terms of making sure I’m not always talking about space. I’m also being a normal college student at the same time.

Alyssa Carson Interview

HG: As one of the sadly too few women in STEM, what’s your advice for others looking to enter the field?

AC: I do think that having some sort of support system is really important when you’re going after anything, whether it’s within STEM or not—and a lot of the time, you may not be able to get that from your family. And sometimes they may want you to do something else. So, I think it’s really important to look for at least one person for you and your dreams, so they can tell you that, yeah, this is something you can achieve. This doesn’t have to be a direct loved one or family member—maybe it’s a friend, maybe it’s a teacher, maybe it’s someone else in your life who’s able to offer that. Having that one person to help you with opportunities, or tell you that you’re doing great in terms of working toward them, is really huge.

I also think that if you’re passionate about something, you can’t let someone take your dreams away from you. If you have a passion for it, you can definitely achieve those dreams. And so I think that really finding that one thing that you’re passionate about [is crucial]. It’s important to go after a job that you truly care about.

Physical Practices

HG: What is it physically like to train as an astronaut? And how did you prepare for this before training began?

AC: Eventually, for the actual astronaut training process, there will be a physical exam. So, in terms of physically training strictly for that is something that will come in a little bit later once I get closer to applying. But there has still been a lot of physical training that is a part of it, whether that is water survival training or microgravity training—all of those are very physical. Swimming in spaces and climbing in spaces can get pretty intense sometimes.

A really good part is a lot of the different research and physical stuff I have been able to do. We pretty much take a class on it before [actually partaking in NASA training]. So [other astronauts in training and I] have an online webinar series about what we’ll be getting into and what we’ll be doing and learning a lot about the science behind it.

I think that that’s been such an essential part of what I’ve been doing because it’s helped me realize whether this is something I really want to do. Being able to get that real-life experience is so important. It really helps you figure out, “Do I actually like this? What do I really enjoy about this? Is this an area of space that I want to continue? Or maybe am I more interested in something else?”

Community Care

HG: What form of community care have you been gravitating toward lately? And how do you believe it has impacted you?

AC: Obviously, generally, science spaces are male-dominated. But I do think that the women who are involved in STEM are a close-knit community. We all kind of come together to help support the next generation of girls and encourage them to get involved in space as well. That’s been really, really cool because we all support each other.

I feel like I know so many women in STEM through all the different experiences that I’ve gone through, and that’s been something that has helped guide me to continue going into STEM. I’ve been able to use their advice to continue working toward my dreams, and now teach and pass that on to the next group of girls who are interested in space. And I think that that has had a pretty big impact, because although it may not be the biggest community, it’s a very tight-knit community. So, it’s been really amazing to kind of be a part of that and use all that knowledge to be able to inspire and teach the next generation of girls.

HG: How do you suggest other people show up for women in STEM?

AC: I think there are a lot of different approaches. One, I think kind of all goes back to our day-to-day life and how we approach the idea of women in STEM, especially when we’re talking to the youth. For example, brands like Olay, which has made strives to talk about women in STEM, allows younger girls to be able to think like, “Oh, look at all these people who are doing this, and maybe that’s something I can do as well.” And so that has been something really cool for me to experience in terms of teaching girls about the number of jobs and stuff that they’re able to do, because they’re able to see how realistic those goals are.

And in our personal lives, [we should be] really realizing what we’re telling our youth. A good example I like to use a lot is, let’s say a little girl breaks her bike—how are you going to go about that situation? Are you going to teach her how to fix it? Are you going to fix it for her? Are you going to teach her brother how to fix it, but not her? Because little moments like that can make a difference. You know, maybe she hates it. And that’s perfectly fine! Or maybe she gets an interest in how things work in engineering or mechanics or something like that.

Personal Joys

HG: Are there any products you’ve been gravitating toward lately during your self-care routine?

AC: Olay has a mineral sunscreen that I’ve been really gravitating toward. And that’s because I live in Melbourne, Florida, and I’ve been going to the beach a fair bit lately. That’s kind of like my little escape from school since we are close to the shore. So that moisturizing sunscreen has been really good to protect my skin, but also to keep it hydrated since I have been outside so much recently.

Alyssa Carson Interview

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HG: What are some self-care practices that have been bringing you joy?

AC: I think one of my favorite things is having a self-care routine, whether that’s like a nightly moisturizer or my nightly serum, stuff like that. At the end of a long day, it’s so good to feel refreshed and going to bed feeling refreshed. It’s so nice to be doing so much during the day and then just come home and relax and have that routine to rely on.