Get to Know Astronaut Abby
Abby Harrison's dreams are big — so big that they're out of this world, literally.
The 18-year-old aspiring astronaut has long been fascinated with space. She recently graduated high school and will be attending Wellesley College in the fall where she hopes to gain the knowledge and experience that will help propel her career into NASA.
Her ultimate goal is to become the first astronaut to make it to Mars. Learn more about her and her inspiring journey in her exclusive interview with MAKERS below.
And don't forget to join the conversation about women in space with our hashtag, #MakeSpaceForWomen.
Q: What sparked your initial interest in space exploration?
A: As a kid, I was always fascinated with space. I loved to look up into the night sky and imagine what the stars and planets were made of, what was out there and what it would be like to go there. I was also heavily influenced by science fiction – I loved stories and movies such as Star Wars about futuristic space faring societies.
Q: You shared on your blog that you'll be attending Wellesley College in the fall. What made you gravitate to this choice? Is there anything in particular Wellesley offers that links to your space aspirations?
A: I "gravitated" to Wellesley College for a variety of reasons. I was looking for a small school where students and professors worked closely together during class and research. I was looking for a school that had a reputation of alumni who have worked for or are working for NASA and specifically on Mars-related projects. My choice of a liberal arts college was based on my desire to study with people pursuing a variety of subjects. While I am focused on STEM studies, I firmly believe in being surrounded by people with a variety of interests and talents. My undergraduate work should prepare me for graduate school but also prepare me to be a well educated citizen in the world, and this means learning from people who are similar to me and very different from me as well. My final reason for choosing Wellesley is the excellent astronomy department and observatory. For someone with my interests that was an immediate pull. I was fortunate to have a doctoral candidate and a professor as mentors to help guide me as I was making my choices as well.
Q: You mentioned our newly launched MAKER Cady Coleman is a friend of yours. What's some of the best advice she's given you that's pushed you to further pursue your dreams?
A: Cady Coleman is really a fantastic person and such an inspiration to me and many others! The most important thing I have learned from Cady is how important it is for women of all ages to work together to inspire one another and promote each other. This is important in STEM fields, but also it's important in all fields. Promoting girls in STEM and women in STEM is essential, and encouraging girls and women to work together is imperative. We need to help one another whenever we can. Cady inspires me to push further with my own outreach work, to inspire more girls and women and also help more reach their dreams.
Q: Who are some women you look up to outside the space community?
A: As a kid I looked up to people in the science fields, such as Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn. I loved to hear about women doing big things in science because I really felt like I could see myself in their shoes in the future. Closer to home, I have been inspired by women in my own family. First, my amazing mother who raised my sister and I as a single parent instilling in us strength and passion for improving the world. My sister, who is two years older than me, has always been a role model for me. She did not have a clear path such as mine to focus on, yet she is willing to go out into the world and explore as much as she can to find her own passion to pursue. In the past couple of years, she has backpacked through Europe twice, completed her first two years of college and is now preparing for a one year trip to South America to study Spanish and volunteer in various locations. She is brave and willing to go out into the world on her own and pave a path that is meaningful and provides her with a true sense of purpose, she has always inspired me and continues to this day. Beyond my family, I have been so fortunate to have women embrace me from many different fields of work, from graphic artists to nonprofit CEOs, to scientists, to engineers and many other fields. It's amazing to be surrounded by strong, independent women role models whom I can talk to and learn from on a daily basis.
Q: If you could live on any other planet aside from Earth, which one would you choose and why?
A: If I could choose to live on another planet, I would choose Mars of course! I have been fascinated by Mars ever since I was a kid. I always loved the idea of learning more about our most hospitable neighbor. Exploring Mars and discovering secrets that are so close at hand and yet have been so unobtainable in the past is fascinating. The truth is, I am an explorer by nature and explorers look to go out and find new "worlds" to learn from and hopefully to help advance their own world. This is what Mars is to me — a new world to explore that will help my own world and will help to advance humankind.
Q: What is it about Mars that excites and inspires you?
A: There are a variety of reasons going to Mars is exciting and important. Mars is a stepping stone to our independence as a space-faring species. By sending humans to Mars, we are proving to ourselves that we are ready and capable of surviving and thriving outside of the protective shell of the Earth. Going to Mars also holds immense value to our understanding of the formation of our solar system. By studying Mars, we can learn about the progression planets undergo over time. Also, Mars is in the habitable zone around our sun, meaning that it has the potential to host life. Sending humans to Mars would help us confirm whether or not microbial life exists there — and if it doesn't, why not?
Q: If you could take any food or meal from Earth and transform it into 'space food', what would it be?
A: I am going to have to go with a classic here…chocolate chip cookies! When you are in an environment that is as inhospitable and irregular as outer space, I feel there would be nothing better than freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. And because it's not possible to have bread or cookies or anything with crumbs in space (because those crumbs can float around and cause difficulty with equipment), I could only dream of chocolate chip cookies being provided as space food.
Q: If you could create your own #FutureOfSpace, what would it look like? Who would it include?
A: I think that creating the #FutureOfSpace should be about inclusion. I love the idea of seeing more girls and women interested in participating in space exploration. I also love the idea of seeing more international cooperation and collaboration in space exploration. What better way to work beyond borders than a place that has none? Human space exploration is a chance for us to work together as one people, one humankind.
Q: What would be one key feature or quality of your dream spaceship?
A: A major feature of my dream spaceship would be advanced radiation protection – I am really into the concept of not dying. Honestly though, I dream of a spaceship that does exactly what it is supposed to do: safely conduct human space exploration of outer space. Oh, near lightspeed travel would be great too!
Q: Can you tell us the most interesting space fact you know?
A: My favorite space fact is that when you look at a picture of far out galaxies, such as those taken by Hubble and other telescopes, you are actually looking millions of years into the past. Since light can only travel at a finite speed, the light that we receive from these galaxies is actually the light emitted in the past. This means that if some sentient alien species were to look at Earth with a telescope from a different point of the universe, they wouldn’t see us, they would see a planet ruled by dinosaurs.
Q: Are you into stargazing? If so, what are some tips for newbies?
A: I LOVE stargazing! My best advice to newbies is that you don't need anything to get started. You don't need a fancy telescope, star maps or even knowledge about what you are seeing. All you need to do is tip your head back, open your eyes and marvel at our place in the universe. I would also recommend at some point going somewhere that has minimal light pollution as this will really give you a new perspective.
Q: Here at MAKERS, we're exploring the conversation #MakeSpaceForWomen, talking about final frontiers where women have yet to break the glass ceiling — like becoming president. What's a final frontier you would love to see women break through?
A: I am really excited about women being first in future human space exploration to deep space destinations such as Mars. In the past, women such as Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride were the first woman and first American woman in space, but they were not the first people in space. I look forward to the day when myself and/or other girls do things, such as landing on Mars — but not setting records for our gender, but setting records for our species. This is why I represent myself as an aspiring first astronaut to Mars and not an aspiring first woman to Mars.
Q: What do you do each day to prepare to make your dream a reality? Special preparation? Diet? Education?
A: The decisions you make everyday, whether small or large, contribute to your future. To prepare to make my dream of being the first astronaut on Mars a reality, I have to be constantly mindful of what I am doing. It’s the difference between watching TV or putting in the extra effort in school. It's the difference between choosing to eat junk food or choosing to eat well. It’s pushing yourself to run the extra mile, to always go a little bit farther, to study a little bit longer, to try a little bit harder than is expected of you.
Q: What advice would you have for any youngsters who want to follow a similar path to you and become an astronaut?
A: The best piece of advice I can give to young people would be to look for opportunities to become involved in STEM and space programs and also to opportunities that will give them unique learning experiences. Often, we think that we can't be involved in something like space travel because we are too young or because of where we live. This is completely false. There are so many great opportunities and experiences for young people in science and space, and with today's technology more and more things are happening online. I also advise kids to follow their own hearts for what excites them and what they are passionate about. My mentor Italian Astronaut Luca Parmitano advised me years ago to "follow your own interests and passions and not to try and study something that I think NASA is looking for, because NASA is looking for people who are passionate about what they do."
Finally, I think it's important that kids understand that sometimes you shoot for your own Mars, a dream that is so challenging and difficult, such as becoming an astronaut and/or being the first astronaut to Mars. There's a real possibility that you may not make it to that dream or goal no matter how hard you work at it – but that's okay. If you follow your own dreams and passions, and incorporate that into your plan, wherever you end up will be amazing.
Learn more about Abby on her website, and check out her TEDx talk from October 2013 in the video below.