When Abigal Harrison was 5 years old, she remembers standing in her backyard on a cold winter Minnesota night when the air was clear, looking up at the night sky with an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder. Her mind swam with questions, she recalls. She wanted to know what the stars were made of and how many there were. She wanted to go to space.
To most people she told, astronaut was lumped in with the same group of unattainable dreams that contained superheroes and princesses as occupations.
At 11 years old, Abby still talked constantly about wanting to go to space. Her mother Nicole, a teacher at the time and single mother of two daughters, realized Abby was serious. Nicole said that if she really wanted to be an astronaut, Abby would need to do the research to figure out what was necessary to achieve her dream.
The next day, Abby returned with two sheets of paper, each detailing a different route to becoming an astronaut. It outlined a plan for the next 20 years of her life, one that led to becoming the first astronaut to step foot on Mars. Putting pen to paper that day was Abby’s first real step towards making her big dream a reality. From that moment on, Nicole would be her daughter’s biggest supporter.
Over the years, aspects of the list have changed as Abby has focused in on specific details of her journey. But the end goal remains the same. So far, her list is on track.
The 22-year-old just graduated Wellesley College with degrees in astrobiology and Russian. And that’s just her most recent achievement.
A recent Facebook post celebrating her graduation catalogs the other things checked off her list. Over the last four years while in school, Harrison founded her nonprofit organization The Mars Generation, earned her private pilot’s license, spent a month researching Lake Baikal in Siberia, was a member of Wellesley’s dive team, learned to code and performed research with artificial intelligence, studied at the Russian State University, ran a marathon, worked as an astrobiologist at the Kennedy Space Center, spoke at conferences around the world, learned violin, piano, and ballet, worked in a greenhouse and an observatory, was in theater and played rugby — among other things.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, and she still has a long way to go. But an old cliché rings true for Abby: The journey is more important than the destination, and it’s about the people you meet along the way.
Becoming ‘Astronaut Abby’
In 2011, when Abby was 13, she began to speak publicly about her dream. Nicole helped her open the Astronaut Abby account on Twitter to get a quote from NASA for an 8th grade project on the International Space Station. It opened the door for Abby to connect with people and she was able to interview astronauts and industry experts. Later that year, she was invited to write for NASA’s space station blog. The Twitter account led to the creation of her brand as Astronaut Abby.
She eagerly attended her first space shuttle launch in Florida, the last launch of Endeavor, but cloud cover obscured all but four seconds of it from her vantage point. At the airport with her mother preparing to fly home, they spotted Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut new to the European Space Agency.
Abby introduced herself to him and he was pleased to meet someone who was so eager to learn more about space. They spoke for an hour about how Abby could achieve her goal and he gave her his email address, wanting to help.
He said he would be her astronaut, and Parmitano didn’t let her down.
“It was monumental to have that personal contact and belief, knowing someone who had accomplished my out-of-this-world dream believed I could also do that,” she said.
Parmitano answered her questions, provided encouragement and helped her stick with the dream.
“Follow your heart in your studies and do what you love. NASA is looking for people who are passionate about what they do,” Parmitano told her. That advice was vital.
It helped decide that she wanted to go the civilian route, rather than the military path, to NASA. It helped her decide where to go to school and what to study, choosing a liberal arts college rather than a tech school because the integration of arts and STEM was important to her.
Abby briefly met astronaut Wendy Lawrence that year. The Kennedy Space Center has a program called Astronaut Encounter where retired astronauts share their spaceflight experiences with visitors. The day that Lawrence was the “astronaut on duty,” she remembers Abby walking up in her signature flight suit with her name on it and handing her a card.
“It was fun to see a kid who was so clear-eyed,” Lawrence said. “It had been my dream to be an astronaut and Apollo inspired us. I could see that in her, and she wanted to go to Mars.”
When Parmitano went to the International Space Station in 2013, Abby was invited to the launch in Russia and was charged with being his Earth Liaison, sharing details of his mission of living and working in space on social media.
At school, Abby knew language skills had always been a part of astronaut selections and she petitioned to transfer to a different high school at age 14 to take Mandarin Chinese classes. She focused on chemistry, robotics, and programming to help decide where she might want to go in the future.
Later that year, she gave a TEDx talk in Tampa Bay called “What’s Your Mars?” with the intent of inspiring people to seize their passion with purpose.
The Mars Generation
A couple of years later, Abby founded her nonprofit organization called The Mars Generation. She asked Lawrence to be on the board and together, they’re working on achieving the goal of using space exploration to inspire a new generation of explorers.
Abby was inspired to create it after her experience attending Space Camp at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The camp is expensive, costing up to $1,199 for a six-day camp. A local nonprofit helped her raise money for her to attend, so she decided to create a nonprofit that would provide scholarships for children from all over the US attend Space Camp.
Since its creation, the Mars Generation has been able to send more than 40 students to Space Camp on scholarship. The student’s expenses are fully paid for and volunteer at the nonprofit help coordinate logistics with the families.
“It’s been fun over the last two years to look at applications of the kids who want to go to Space Camp,” Lawrence said. “You can see that potential. You just want to make sure that kids have access to opportunities. You hate for money to ever be a barrier. Kids with potential just need the chance to go to Space Camp and see the potential inside themselves. We’re going to remove that barrier.”
The nonprofit works with educators to find kids who have interest and potential but don’t know about Space Camp.
“I had a parent who was really involved in my development, she had time outside of job to focus on my sister and I and could help fill out forms and find programs to fundraise,” Abby said. “In some communities we find, the parents are working so hard to meet basic needs. So, we’re matchmaking for dreams and lighting the spark.”
Taking to the skies
But her journey hasn’t always been successful, and Abby feels fortunate to have such a supportive network around her.
“I’ve fallen down more times than I can count over the last decade,” Abby said. “But I’ve been thinking about how important it is to fail over the last year. But the advice I have is that failure is not the exception, it’s the norm. And the only thing that holds you back with failure is whether or not you’re willing to get up and try again afterward.”
During the last two years of college, Abby worked on obtaining her private pilot’s license, an intense, difficult and expensive process with about an 80% dropout rate.
And when she first began working on getting her license, she experienced sexism.
During her first flight, called a discovery flight with an instructor, the pilot asked why she wanted to fly and 17-year-old Abby told him about her dreams.
She recalled him saying, without pause, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. In 10 to 20 years, you’ll have kids and you won’t want to go to space.” It wasn’t said with malice, but he acted as though he was doing her a favor.
It reminded Abby of how deeply sexism was still entrenched in STEM.
“I’ve been surrounded by people who are supportive, and if I hadn’t, what he said could have had a much bigger impact,” Abby said. “Now, being able to say that I have accomplished this is a huge point of pride for me. Talk loudly about your dreams. And build a group of people around you when you fall down.”
Now that Abby has graduated, she’s taking a gap year to focus on the Mars Generation while taking trips through Russia and China to gain some real-world experience. After that, she’ll attend graduate school, pursuing a doctorate in astrobiology or planetary sciences and geophysics.
Abby’s break is more than well deserved. She’s been in college for six years, beginning her attendance at the University of Minnesota when she was 16 for two years before transferring to Wellesley for the last four.
And the timeline to be an astronaut still lies before her, likely another 10 to 15 years down the road. While getting her graduate degree, she’s planning on improving her aviation skills and hopes to gain more research experience, whether it’s collecting meteorites in Antarctica or studying in extreme areas of the world that are like Mars.
Looking to Mars
Abby believes that Mars is a key goal for three reasons. First, it’s the necessary next step in space exploration, a challenge that seems nearly impossible but will provide a wave of solutions on Earth with the innovations that the journey there brings.
“This incredibly high feedback of advancement is what you only see when we’re doing something challenging in space,” she said. “Mars is the next thing to overcome.”
Second, Mars will require creative solutions, which is part of why Abby thinks it’s so important to include the arts along with STEM education.
And third, Mars is the stepping stone to the rest of our solar system, which will require a new level of independence in space exploration. Once we can go there, we can go elsewhere.
Thirdly, it inspires people. “In space, we haven’t divided by country anymore, we’re a species, we’re a planet that is collectively exploring,” Abby said. “It makes us feel connected to one another and excited about our future.”
NASA astronaut Sally Ride once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Abby has spent the last 10 years attending conferences and speaking about her dreams. And many who know her believe she’s a crucial player in inspiring the next generation as well as acting as a kind of STEM influencer.
Ellen Stofan first met Abby during a 2014 launch when Stofan was NASA’s chief scientist. Stofan is now at the Smithsonian but she’s remained in touch with Abby.
“How do you inspire the next generation of STEM? You need people like Abby who are a living personification of STEM that make it accessible,” Stofan said. “She’s putting her path out there for people to follow and she’s really filling a critical role.”
Diversifying STEM is a pipeline problem, Stofan said. It’s engaging younger generations and making sure that they feel welcome. It’s telling all of the stories, rather than focusing on one kind of story.
Abby’s story will only continue.
“I want my kids to go into the world and not self-limit, but live the most amazing lives they possibly can,” Nicole said. Watching Abby grow up, achieving things left and right, and most recent graduate has brought Nicole joy.
Nicole remembers thinking that her daughter would grow out of the “astronaut thing” when she was younger.
“Being an astronaut is hard,” Nicole remembers saying. “You have this fear of heights, and you’d be going up into space in a rocket.”
Abby flashed her “cockiest 9-year-old smile,” Nicole said and stood on top of her playhouse, 12 feet off the ground.
“I’ll have to get over my fear,” Abby said.
Years later, Abby would bungee-jump out of an airplane. Now, she flies them. And one day, she’ll check all the boxes on her list and fly through space