At just five years old, Abby Harrison knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. Most kids at that age have big dreams, the kind that usually fade away with time, but not Abby’s. Today, as a result of her incredible passion and “sticking with it” attitude, this 15-year old is one step closer to her dream of becoming the first astronaut on Mars.
After a visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center a couple of years ago to witness the final launch of the shuttle Endeavor, Abby met Italian Astronaut Luca Parmitano. It was after this chance meeting that Abby asked Parmitano to become her mentor as she continued on her journey to space. He agreed.
It’s this ongoing relationship and mentorship that has landed Abby in her current role as Parmitano’s “Earth Liaison” during his upcoming mission to the International Space Station, aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Abby is currently in Kazakhstan to witness the spacecraft’s launch scheduled for May 28th. Her “Soyuz Adventure” is made possible by a recent crowdfunding campaign, which raised more than $35,000.
In a recent interview Parmitano explained his commitment to this young woman, “I like passionate people. Any kind of passion. Any kind of interest in anything that keeps you inspired… I saw a lot of myself in Abby.” Parmintano has made the commitment to mentor Abby now and perhaps someday he will train her for her mission to Mars.
Through this unprecedented project, and Abby’s educational outreach program promoting space and STEM careers in schools, it is their collective hope to inspire other young people to go after their own aspirations.
Abby is also introducing a pen-pal program in which she’ll send readers personal emails about her experiences, and this August she will speak at a convention for the Mars Society about the importance of Mars exploration.
“When you’re young and you have that big of a dream, most people just ignore you. I made plans, I worked hard, and I focused on my goal. As I got older and continued to stay focused on STEM subjects, people in my life (my family, friends, teachers), began to notice, and were encouraging”, says Abby. “Now that I’m on my journey to being an astronaut, I want to use my story to inspire other young people to follow their dreams as well.”
We recently had a chance to speak with Abby about her passion, commitment, what inspires her and how she balances it all. This young WYSK is surely one to watch!
10 Questions With Astronaut Abby
What inspired you to want to be an astronaut?
AA: Space has always interested me, ever since I was a little kid. There’s a certain mystery to space, a curiosity that has always enraptured me. Space truly is the ‘final frontier’, the one place that holds endless mysteries and answers. There’s so much out there to learn and we have the power to explore. I have always hoped to become an astronaut and get closer to the stars.
When did you know this was your dream?
AA: I’m not exactly sure when I started saying I wanted to be an astronaut, but it was just something that had always been at the back of my mind ever since I can remember. I started to be fascinated with space around age 5 and by about age 7 I firmly knew I wanted to be an astronaut. This was about the time I became interested in science fiction books, which I think had a large impact on the development of my dreams to be an astronaut. My dad was really into science fiction, and as I read books and watched movies which involved space travel and ‘astronavigators’ I started to dream and soon that dream became my passion.
What are you doing to make this happen for yourself?
AA: In pursuing my dreams I am working hard in school, exploring extracurricular science and space activities, and conducting educational outreach programs. Working hard in school is obviously important: the path to being an astronaut is laced with further education in the sciences, and only the best of the best make it.
Exploring science and space activities has involved exploring the online space community, attending space camp and launches, and participating in science programs. The last part, creating an educational outreach campaign, is my way of giving back to the community through my adventures. Inspiring others, especially kids, to discover their dreams and have the courage to follow them is an important part of my journey towards becoming an astronaut.
What do you love most about science and space?
AA: I’ve always been an explorer at heart. With that said, science, and space especially, is a new avenue for me to explore. There is so much we don’t know in the world, there’s still so much to be discovered, and I want to be a part of that discovery process.
How do you balance school and your Astronaut Abby activities?
AA: One word: priorities. To me, balancing my aspirations to be an astronaut, my educational outreach campaign, and life as a high school student and athlete (I am a competitive gymnast) is all about prioritizing. Once I know what is most important to me, I can arrange my schedule and plan accordingly.
Who are your heroes?
AA: My biggest heroes are teachers. Teachers influence us when we are young and can be incredibly inspirational. They usually aren’t paid extensively, and yet it has been my experience that they often go above and beyond what is required of them in order to benefit their students. Many of my teachers have encouraged me in the pursuit of my dreams, and having others believe in me from the start pushed me to keep working and persevering.
What is an “Earth Liaison” and how did you get selected by Astronaut Parmitano to become one?
AA: Earth Liaison is a role created by Astronaut Luca Parmitano and myself as a new connection between the space program and the people. In my role as Earth Liaison I will communicate regularly with Astronaut Parmitano while he’s away, and help him share his stories (via social media and my blog) of living and working in space with kids and adults during my six-month long educational outreach campaign.
As a young woman, do you find there is a lack of female role models in science? What can be done about it?
AA: I have been fortunate in that I have had many positive female role models in science, but I do notice a discrepancy between men and women in my day-to-day involvement in the sciences. Everything from the lack of girls in my high school engineering class to the numerical difference of women astronauts, these differences are noticeable. My personal take on how this gap can be bridged is to stop distinguishing by gender in the science fields. To stop identifying someone first as a man or a woman, and focus more on what they do and who they are. Instead of labeling someone as a female scientist or a female astronaut, simply call her a scientist or an astronaut. I think that by changing the way we perceive women in the sciences, which is currently seen as something monumental, and start seeing it as commonplace we can make a big impact.
Other than science and space, what do you like to spend your timing doing?
AA: Outside of my interests in science, space, and education I’m pretty much a normal teenager! I like hanging out with my friends, reading books, and playing sports, mainly year-round competitive gymnastics.
Is there a woman in science that inspires you?
AA: A lot of role models are people who are way out there – astronauts, presidents, the big people. But my personal female role model is someone a little closer to home: my fifth grade science teacher, Ms. Hill. Ms. Hill helped me get involved in science, inspiring me with her own passion. She went above and beyond her job, and showed me what it means to love science, and how important it is to pass that love on.