Astronaut Abby is a busy college student and the founder of The Mars Generation, but she still found time for an interview with MoreForKids. Meet this aspiring astronaut who’s taking the social media world by storm and inspiring kids everywhere.
Abigail Harrison is shooting for the stars – and she’s hoping it will land her on Mars.
Harrison, better known as Astronaut Abby, has an army of fans who believe in her and her mission. This 19-year-old from Minneapolis started a non-profit organization in 2015 called The Mars Generation that has reached millions and aims to keep people interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and exploring space.
Her biggest goal, however, might not be changing this world, but exploring another. She wants to be the first astronaut on Mars.
Why Mars instead of another planet?
“Mars is a perfect next step for humanity to take in human space exploration. It is difficult enough to really challenge us, to push us outside of our comfort zone and force us to innovate. However, it is not so difficult as to be impossible,” she said.
While Harrison is making headway these days toward making her dream a reality, it’s a vision that has been years in the making.
How It All Began
Harrison doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by space.
“There is no one thing that sparked my interest, but rather a general sense of curiosity and wonder. I have memories as far back as I can remember of looking up at the night sky and knowing that one day I would go to space,” she said. “I didn’t know how or when, but I knew this was what I wanted to do. My first memory of this was around the age of 5.”
Her parents figured her interest in space was a passing whim.
“When I was young, my parents provided me with a lot of opportunities to explore all my interests. But for most of my childhood, my parents didn’t focus on my dream of becoming an astronaut because they figured I would grow out of that. They encouraged my love of space and STEM, but did not focus on my astronaut dreams.”
When Harrison was in her early teen years, her parents began to realize her fascination with space was more than a childhood fantasy. They began taking her aspirations seriously.
But Harrison is glad they didn’t realize before then that space was the end goal for her because she might have missed out on the well-rounded upbringing she had if they were all only focused on one aspect of her interests.
“This meant that I was exposed to a broad variety of experiences and got to live out my childhood without any pressure weighing me down. Even though my main interests were space and science, I was also in dance, gymnastics, soccer, the circus, fencing, played instruments and more. This allowed me to develop into a well-rounded person, capable of balancing a long-term goal without burning out.”
She isn’t the only well-rounded girl in her family though. She has two sisters who have busy, active lives of their own.
“My older sister is 21, and she is already an explorer, having backpacked extensively in Europe, Asia and South America. She is also an activist and a student. It is hard to tell what career field she will end up in, although I am pretty sure she will be working in some capacity to bring equality to all people regardless of gender or ethnicity,” Harrison said.
“My younger sister is only 9 years old, and like many 9 year olds, flips her ambitions every week from vet to superstar to computer programmer,” she said.
How She Kept Her Interest in STEM in Junior High
A common complaint among educators is that girls in junior high seem to lose interest in math and science – even if they were showing promise in those subjects up to that point. Harrison never lost her interest, but she knows it’s a phenomenon across the country.
“I think that societally we have this expectation that STEM is not cool and especially is not feminine,” she said. “The stereotype that ‘guys don’t like smart girls’ still exists. This pushes a lot of girls away from STEM subjects.”
Harrison said she avoided ditching her interest in STEM because of the support system she had in place and the goals she had set for herself.
“I had a group of friends who were all extremely bright and interested in STEM, teachers and other mentors in the field, parents who supported my interests, and a digital community of people excited about my dreams,” she said. “I also had a strong sense of self and a guiding passion which kept me from deviating from who I knew I was and what I was capable of.”
Harrison hopes girls will continue to realize that science and math aren’t just for boys.
“If we do not have women actively working in the STEM fields, we are losing out on 50 percent of the talent in our workforce. Anytime someone is left out of the equation, we lose talent,” she said. “It is imperative that we include women and minorities at the table for STEM in order to continue to be the world leaders in innovation.”
Finding the Right College
When Harrison was applying for colleges, she did the research and one name was at the top of her list – Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She decided to dive right in – both as a student and as a member of the college’s dive team, which is her best sport.
“It seemed like everything fit perfectly – they had a wonderful varsity diving team, professors who interacted with students on a personal level, an observatory, a beautiful campus, a small town feel near a large city, and an environment which empowered women to reach their full potential. I knew immediately after visiting the campus that this was where I wanted to be, and I couldn’t have made a better choice,” she said.
College can be a whirlwind of activity between work, classes and social opportunities. But Harrison also must juggle a non-profit organization and keeping up with a vital social media presence.
While The Mars Generation takes up a fair amount of her time, it’s something she’s passionate about.
“The Mars Generation really encourages young people to follow their passions, talk about their dreams and find opportunities or create their own opportunities to help make their dreams come true,” she said.
The Mars Generation likely wouldn’t exist if Harrison hadn’t benefited from someone else’s kindness, and decided to pass it on.
“It began when I was 12 years old and attended Space Camp for the first time. I was able to attend because of a local non-profit that sent a group every year. It was such an amazing experience and I came home so excited. I told my mom, ‘One of the tenants they teach us in STEM education is that we should pass on what we learn. I want to share my Space Camp experience with kids who don’t have the opportunity to go,’” she said.
That desire to share her trip to Space Camp sparked the idea for The Mars Generation.
“And while it started small and with only a few kids, over the years it grew into what it is today. I had no idea it would grow this big because back then the focus was to share within my own community,” Harrison said.
Social media has helped Harrison immensely with her goals and with the success of The Mars Generation.
“Social media is an incredible tool and, with the help of my mom guiding me, I have been able to use it to network and build relationships that have certainly helped me on my personal journey,” she said. “As far as my nonprofit is concerned, The Mars Generation is built directly from the support of the incredibly community that has embraced me online. With over 700,000 people following my journey, many of these same people have also chosen to support this nonprofit.”
Harrison is the first one to admit that her schedule has been pretty packed since she headed off to college. When the movie “The Martian” came out in 2015, for instance, it took Harrison a while to find the time to see it.
“I did not see the movie until it had been in theaters for over a month because when I am in school I am incredibly busy. I did, however, read the book several years before it became a movie,” she said.
But Harrison isn’t all work and no play – she makes time for her hobbies and having fun.
“I play Irish fiddle as part of a performative group, play rugby, cook and bake a lot, and enjoy partner dancing. I dance swing, blues, waltz, tango and contra,” she said.
What’s Next for Harrison?
Harrison expects to graduate from college in 2019, and she has her next steps already mapped out while she keeps her eye on an eventual Mars trip, which she said is realistically still probably 15 years away.
“I plan to enter straight into a PhD program for astrobiology or a related subject and work towards my doctorate degree,” she said. “After that, I will work as a scientist and eventually apply as an astronaut candidate with NASA.”
While she’s working on getting there, she’ll keep up her work with The Mars Generation and meeting up with the astronauts she idolizes whenever she gets a chance.
Harrison has lost track of how many astronauts she has met by now.
“But it’s been a lot. I would guess around 30 to 40,” she said.
Although she said it’s impossible to pick her favorite astronaut, she does have three she particularly admires.
“My Top 3 are my mentor Luca Parmitano, who has been such an inspiration to me as I have grown up watching his career as an astronaut grow – he is still an active astronaut. Wendy Lawrence and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger are also favorite astronauts as they have served as role models to me and also are both advisory board members for my nonprofit,” she said. “Wendy and Dottie are both retired astronauts and I admire the work they do in STEM education – they are both amazing.”
She has also enjoyed meeting Bill Nye, a science educator popular with kids everywhere.
“Bill is an amazing person, filled with passion and energy. And having the opportunity to meet and connect with him several times has been incredible,” Harrison said.
Astronaut Abby: Her Life as a Role Model
Whenever Harrison has time available, she likes to fit in speaking engagements. Her inspiring talk called “What’s Your Mars?” encourages people to find their own dream and pursue it with everything they have.
“It’s important to write down your dreams and what steps you will need to take to reach those dreams. While the big dream will be further out, it’s important to back into it with all the small steps you will need to take to reach that dream,” she said. “Write it all down and keep a record of your progress. Be flexible and know the plan can change and goals can change too, but also know that everything you choose to do or not do today will affect your future.”
She encourages kids to share their dreams with others, find their own support system, and to never quit trying.
“Even if people don’t support you initially, don’t give up, and keep talking about what you are dreaming and the steps you are taking to make it happen,” she said. “When I presented my outline at age 11 of how I planned to become an astronaut to my mom, she became my biggest supporter. My dream went from being something she and others saw as a childhood fantasy to something that people took seriously.”
Though her dreams were big right from the start, Harrison has never contemplated quitting.
“I don’t do anything halfway. Once I commit to something, I give it 110 percent and will not give up until I accomplish it,” she said.
And once she finally reaches her dream and lands on Mars, what’s the first thing she’d like to do?
“Probably take a selfie and send it back to Earth,” she said.
“Well Abby, we will be right there with you cheering you on!” – Kevin CEO More4kids
Visit Astronaut Abby at http://www.astronautabby.com/