As children are often confronted with the question: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and most often, we have the wildest ideas of what we want to do. We want to become sports professionals, princesses, adventurers, or astronauts. In our innocence, we believe that anything is possible, but regrettably, most of us lose our innocent belief and give up on our dreams.
Not Elsa Shiju, though. Already at the age of three, she dreamed of being involved in space exploration. “My father told me about the moon landings and that we could one day travel to Mars,” and that got her curious about the topic and made her watch videos, read books and go to all the Space Camps she could find. By age seven she knew space was her dream and Mars her destination, so she went for it with all she’s got. For almost her entire life, she’s been planning to become an astronaut and be one of the first humans to step foot on Mars.
And judging by how committed she seems to the cause, she just might stand a chance.
She’s already attending NASA’s Space Camps, and is now studying college-level classes from 8th grade.
At just 13 years old, Elsa’s list of accomplishments include witnessing three Space Shuttle launches, attending Space Camp four times, Space Academy, Robotics Academy, Cosmosphere Camp, National Flight Academy and VA Space Flight Academy including obtaining her Open Water Scuba Certification.
That’s an impressive list of achievements already – you have to tick a lot of boxes if you want to make it as an astronaut, but Elsa is checking them off one by one.
But it hasn’t always been easy to be taken seriously at such a young age in that industry, she explains, and it’s still sometimes a struggle. Her older peers “have always been welcoming and nurtured my interest in space, but at the same time, I’ve always had the feeling I had to prove myself, and I had to show that I was just as skilled or could contribute just as well.” Elsa’s advice to any young person following their dreams include:
She loves space, so no matter if she experiences challenges or setbacks, she has a fire burning in her which keeps her going. So do something you’re really passionate about and let that fuel your motivation when you’re meeting resistance from your environment.
Although she is full of space passion, she thinks it’s important to balance out her life and not only to focus on her dream. Otherwise, her passion might burn out. So, if you’re working hard to achieve a goal, remember to take time for fun and other activities too, so you don’t lose your motivation.
Goals are important, but life is full of surprises and the future unpredictable. She always tries to stay open and look out for unexpected opportunities and advises you to do the same. Keep exploring and trying new things out.
Once you figure out what you’re deeply interested in and you learn to trust yourself and your abilities, any obstacle becomes manageable.
Training to become an astronaut is no easy feat. It’s not only physically intense, but also psychologically. During her training, she has practiced navigating in zero gravity deep under water.
Elsa definitely believes in pushing oneself out of one’s comfort zone in order to learn and grow oneself. It’s scary sometimes, but always incredibly rewarding afterwards.
“Right now the plans for going to Mars are set for the early 2030s, which is great because I still have to finish school and get some work experience before applying,” Elsa’s practical nature keeps her relaxed about the upcoming mission and the role she will be playing.
“It takes 10,000 people to send one astronaut into space, and there are so many jobs involved you wouldn’t initially think of.” Even if being an astronaut isn’t the job for you, there are a lot more ways to get involved with space than becoming an astronaut for NASA, she stresses. One’s dream can take many shapes and forms, so even if you’re more interested in robotics, in AI, in design, in journalism, in psychology, you can find a place in the space industry.
“Definitely keep your mind open. And don’t be afraid to explore your different interests. All those small jobs really have a huge impact.” And this isn’t just the case in the space industry: It takes many people doing many different tasks to reach big goals. Whatever role you have and job you do, you can have a big impact as long as you place yourself behind a grand vision. It’s not about your title, it’s about your contribution.
Talk about your dreams and goals. Someone might know someone who knows someone. – Elsa Shiju
“Even though there’s a lot of risk in going to Mars, I believe the rewards are so much greater,” she says. “At the end of the day there’s so much good that can come from this mission.”
As she sees it, the benefits greatly outweigh the potential risks. Being part of what she calls “The Mars Generation”, she considers it “my duty to cross this bridge so that the generations after me can cross theirs”, explaining that a Mars mission could possibly answer questions about sustainability on Earth and the survival of humankind in the wake of the climate crisis.
Pursuing a passion in the public eye, while never her initial goal, has nonetheless provided the opportunity to expand her social role in the sciences. “The reason I started speaking and doing more public events was really just because I saw, when the shuttle program ended, that there was a huge gap between what was really going on in the space industry and what the public had an understanding of,” she says. “People were acting like NASA was closed, or that there was no more need for astronauts, when that’s not true at all! So, what started out as a way to document my own aspirations has become an awesome way to connect with and inspire other people who have the same dreams.”
And this is why Elsa Shiju is no ordinary girl. If it’s anyone’s destiny to reach Mars, it’s hers.
Caleb Scarlet, Careers Reporter
Caleb Scarlet is a careers reporter who has a BA in neuroscience and a master’s degree in science communication. She is also an aspiring poet and a big fan of future technologies.