Abigail Harrison is better known as Astronaut Abby. Obsessed with space from a young age, the 21-year-old has made it her mission to become the first astronaut on Mars. While this may seem like a lofty goal, she’s well on her way to achieving it. She has attended several space launches, been a guest blogger for NASA’s ISS blog and served as Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano’s Earth liaison. Harrison is also passionate about inspiring the next generation. She spoke at TEDx at 16 years old and travels globally to classrooms to motivate kids. She also started a nonprofit, The Mars Generation, dedicated to empowering youth through STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and space education. We caught up with the superstar (dare we say supernova?) to talk about exploring our world and beyond.
On becoming fascinated with space and going to Mars: Kids are so curious, and that curiosity for me took the form of exploration and space and wanting to answer the questions that don’t have answers right now. I was around 8 when I decided I wanted to be the first person on Mars. I already knew I wanted to be an astronaut, but I realized if we want to continue to see excellence in space exploration we need to have a big goal. Mars is the perfect next step for humankind to take. It’s something that’s within the realm of possibility. And then I thought, Why not me?
Inspiring the Next Generation: A 16-year-old talking to other 16-year-olds or to 10-year-olds has a very different ability to reach them than a 30-year-old does. I think it’s imperative that we do the work now to get the next generation excited. That involves both inspiring and also providing concrete resources to make sure that we have students in the future who are pursuing careers in STEM and in space exploration. As scientists, we have an obligation to ensure that we’re making our work accessible to the general public and especially to young people.
Going to Space Camp as a Kid: I grew up in Minneapolis, and my mom was a single mother and teacher. For us, space camp wasn’t financially possible. Then a teacher recommended a program called Reach for The Stars, which helps kids to fundraise trips to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. I joined, and we met every month and not only did the fundraising but also did activities learning about space exploration and engineering. That experience was transformational for me.
The Mars Generation: This year, The Mars Generation, my nonprofit, is funding 16 scholarships for students to go to Space Camp. To be in a position now where I can make that happen for students living below the national poverty line is incredible. It’s a big deal for me to be able to help facilitate something like that nine years after I was the recipient of a similar program’s scholarship.
Her Top Travels: When I was 15, astronaut Luca Parmitano invited me to his launch in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. We spent a week in Moscow and then almost a week in Baikonur. I was so fascinated by the culture and history. I definitely look at space as an extension of traveling and exploration. I have a sister, and my mom calls us her “Two Explorers” because she explores Earth and I explore the rest of the solar system.
Best Advice for Young Explorers: When it comes to dreaming big, you have to be your first advocate. You have to be able to tell others about yourself so they can come alongside you and support you. Be loud about your dreams, and always be proud of them, too.
By Hannah Freedman