Superstar millennial Abigail Harrison has drive that is rare for a high school sophomore. Inspired by the clear Minnesota night sky and the stars that captivated her at age five, the young astronaut-in-training has approached a new stage in her goal of becoming the first astronaut on Mars. On April 24, Harrison announced that she and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano would collaborate on a massive social media educational project. Harrison will act as Parmitano’s Earth liaison while the astronaut collects data and information aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in May.
As she counts down the days until her mentor lifts off aboard Soyuz-TMA-09M, Harrison took a moment to talk to me about her life as a STEM and Space research advocate. Harrison says that millennials and policymakers should care about space research because it paves the way for a more savvy tomorrow. Much like how military advances gave birth to household items like the GPS and microwaves, Harrison underscores the importance of space research as a vital testing ground for the technologies that we’ll use every day in the future.
YA: Why is it important for millennials and younger people to care about STEM fields and space exploration?
AH: When we have a good space program, our society definitely benefits from that, not only because exploring space and continuing to do research there is something that benefits all of humanity, but in a more close sense in that, a good majority of the technologies that we use, either use something in space to help them with, or they are derived from products that were created in the space program. Throughout the Apollo Program and the Shuttle Program, those programs; different kinds of insulation and foam technology — all of these things were created as "spin-offs." So I feel that by inspiring more young people to get involved with the space program and really reviving it, our society will benefit immensely.
YA: Tell me about how your project with astronaut Luca Parmitano came to be. I read somewhere that you bumped into him at the airport.
AH: My mom and I had gone to watch the launch of Shuttle Endeavor, the last launch STS-134, and when we were on our way back, we were on in the Florida airport. We turned around and right behind us, Luca was coming through security at the same time. And so, I introduced myself and luckily, he had enough time before his next flight where we were able to sit down for about an hour and just talk about stuff. And then at the end, he offered to stay in touch and since then, it's just been great.
The way that I knew about Luca before I met him in the airport was that my mom had been invited to a Tweet-Up for the launch of STS-134. But NASA has age restrictions for events like that so I wasn't old enough — you have to be 18 or older. So I wasn't able to participate in any of the events associated with that. But [at] one of them, Luca was a speaker there. So my mom saw him speaking and went up and talked to him about me afterwards and he was really excited about my dreams and my goals and what I was doing to reach them. But, just due to logistics and everything, we weren't able to have a meeting to talk while we were in Florida. And it just ended up being very serendipitous that we ran into him at the airport.
YA: Twitter was also a useful tool for you in 7th grade when you worked on an optional history project that got you interested in the International Space Station. Is that what inspired your “Astronaut Abby’s Space Program to Inspire Future Generations” campaign?
AH: The prize, if you won State History Day, was that you got to go to nationals, which was in Washington D.C. And I wanted to go to the Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C. I ended up not winning … But along the way … one of the things that I did was I set up a Twitter account because I wanted to get involved and get in touch with some NASA employees and that was one of the ways that I thought of. So, my mom helped me set up this Twitter account and I ended up getting some really great quotes from NASA employees for my project, but even more than that, I got involved in an amazing community of people who are interested in space online, which motivated me and propelled me to set up my website and my blog and to really get more in-depth with the space program.
YA: Tell me more about the blog and how people can follow your collaboration with Luca Parmitano.
AH: When Luca got cited to go on this mission and when he invited me to come watch his launch in Russia, I knew that this was ... this experience was just too big of an experience for me to share solely through my blog and just hope they could just hear about it, or that other people would care about it. I knew that this was an experience that I really — there was so much I could do with it that I needed to do something more than just a website in order to really push this message out there. Because only about 150 people get to watch each Soyuz launch … I just thought that it would be amazing if I could create or help bring that to thousands of people everywhere around the world. And then when I had that idea, the campaign just grew from there into an outreach program.
YA: How are you balancing your astronaut efforts with your schoolwork?
AH: It is kind of hard; I'd say that's my biggest issue or not really issue — challenge is trying to find the time to do everything that I want to do, to do well at school, to do well at sports. I do year-round gymnastics, to have a social life, and then to also do this outreach program. It's been incredibly time-consuming, the entire thing, but what really helps me to balance things and to know that it's worth it and continue to work hard at it is that I believe so greatly this campaign will make a big impact on a lot of people's lives. And so knowing that has helped me keep prioritizing where I want things to fall in my schedule. It's like juggling!
YA: What message do you have, first, for millennials interested in space, and what would you like to say to policymakers who are cutting federal funding for space exploration and research?
AH: My advice to other kids expanding on what I previosly said to people who are interested in space and in science, is really just to do what they love and love what they do, and to find that passion and to work hard at it. No matter if you have a goal or if you're not sure what you want to do in the future, if you find something that you're interested in and you work hard towards doing that and work hard at doing that, you will end up somewhere in life that you are happy with. So that's really what I would tell to any kid out there who has a dream or passion.
And then as far as what I would say to policymakers who are currently figuring budgetting for NASA is that NASA is so important to our daily lives in multiple ways. In the spin-off technologies we benefit from every day and the educational outreach that they do that impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of kids across the United States, and in the research that they continue to do for us, which will continue to improve our future and our childrens' future, I would strongly recommend or suggest that they continue to fund NASA to the fullest extent.
YA: Here’s the golden question: how likely do you think it will be for you to be the first astronaut that goes to Mars?
AH: I think it's hard to make a prediction like that because there are so many factors that play into it. But as far as I'm going, I think it's very likely that I will be the first astronaut to go to Mars. I think I'll have to work really hard at it and that a lot of things will have to line up correctly for it to happen but that like I said, if you work hard at something, it can happen. And it will happen. So I believe that being the first astronaut on Mars is a goal that I've made and that I'm committed to working to working towards.
Illustration by Meghan Murphy
To read more of my interview with Harrison, click here.