BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) " Alyssa Carson, 17, is your typical Southern girl.
She loves crawfish, music, festivals, hanging with her friends and watching cooking shows on Netflix.
The Baton Rouge teen will be a high school senior this fall, so she's soaking up the summer fun while it lasts.
Alyssa's life seems pretty normal, right?
In many ways, it is " but along the way, she's also been planning the trip of a lifetime.
Alyssa's on a mission to be among the first people on Mars " and based on her trajectory, it very well may happen.
Alyssa was born on March 10, 2001, in Hammond, Louisiana. She was raised by her father, Bert, and for the past 17 years, they've basically been inseparable.
"Before my daughter was born," Bert says, "I was a freelance videographer, so I traveled all over the world. I couldn't really have a family living that lifestyle, so when I got the chance to work at a TV station in Baton Rouge 18 years ago, the timing was perfect. I wanted to do everything I could with Alyssa. I just never thought that our life would develop into this, and I would be traveling around the world again . this time with my daughter."
Alyssa has been to space camp in Turkey, Canada and Huntsville, Missouri, 18 times in the last 10 years. She's gearing up for her 19th trip, set for later this summer.
"Right now," Bert says on July 11, "we're in Huntsville at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for alumni weekend. We always come up ahead of time to help them prepare, amidst an already crazy busy life!"
But crazy has been the longtime "normal" for this family of two, who have been chasing the path to outer space since Alyssa was a young child.
So, how did this mind-blowing dream become a possible reality?
Ironically, it started with a cartoon.
"Alyssa used to love watching 'The Backyardigans' when she was 3," Bert recalls. "And there was an episode called 'Mission to Mars.' I remember her coming to me and asking about it " she said, 'I decided I want to be one of those astronauts and go to Mars one day.' She developed a fascination, and it kept developing from there."
When Alyssa was 7, she and her father made their first trip to Huntsville. They visited the space museum " and she was hooked.
"Alyssa was like a kid going to Disney and hanging with Mickey for four days," Bert laughs. "We got information about space camp and came back for a parent/child weekend where she got to explore simulators and rockets."
By that time, Alyssa, who attends the Baton Rouge International School, was speaking four languages " Chinese, Spanish, French and English " and quickly caught the eye of space-center bigwigs. Before turning 8, she was awarded the Right Stuff Award, which is named for Tom Wolfe's 1979 book, "The Right Stuff." It's given to an outstanding trainee who goes above and beyond in leadership, teamwork and technology throughout the time at space camp.
"When that happened," Bert says, "I broke down. I was like, 'My kid's going to Mars.' "
Alyssa was serious about heading to space.
By the age of 12, she had already met with Bill Parsons, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and sat on a NASA panel at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to discuss the future of Mars missions.
Alyssa has had private talks with former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, has a close relationship with Space Center CEO Deborah Barnhart, and is mentored by several other influential people in the space program.
"Everyone at NASA knows how serious she is," Bert explains, "and that she has the potential to be on the first mission, which is targeted for 2033. The employees who are building the rockets see who they are building them for . Alyssa is being groomed to go to Mars, and so many people are helping her to build a unique resume to help her stand out from everyone else."
For this teen, "standing out" is most definitely an understatement.
Parsons told Alyssa to get her pilot's license and scuba license (both of which she now has), she's certified to launch special types of rockets, at the end of August, she will be among the first to receive an applied astronautics professional certification.
At 14, Alyssa was accepted into the International Space University to pursue a master's degree, once she earns her astrobiology undergraduate degree from the Florida Institute of Technology, where she will attend college.
"But again," Bert stresses, "she's not a genius. She just works hard every day and has been studying space since she was 7."
Alyssa, who plans to be a biologist and geologist on the first mission to Mars, is so passionate about her dream because she feels exploring other planets is something that needs to be done.
"It went from a fascination, to a feeling that it's part of what we need to do to explore further, to take that first baby step outside our cradle of Earth, if our species is to survive. Alyssa knows that going to Mars is not the solution, but a necessary first step."
Bert backs his daughter's goal " as extraordinary as it may be " 100 percent, but also encourages her to lead a balanced life while inspiring other teens to follow their dreams.
"She always tells people to find a subject in school that they really love," Bert explains. "Research the careers out there and find the career that you really want to do . make that your dream no matter how crazy it may be because it doesn't get any crazier than this, what she's doing. Never give up or let anyone take it away from you."
Bert and Alyssa both encourage people to be vocal about what they want " because you never know who's listening.
"The reason we met Bill Parsons is because he went to high school, in a very small town, with a good friend of mine," Bert says. "My buddy heard about what Alyssa was doing and set up her first meeting with Bill. You would never guess that (one of NASA'S top people) is from Chatawa, Mississippi!"
To follow Alyssa's path to Mars, search "NASA Blueberry," her NASA call sign, on Facebook.
Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com