Astronaut Abby (Abby Harrison) is 16 years old and has already figured out her life’s goal: to be the first human to step on the surface of Mars.
This high school student has done her homework and has earned serious credibility in the space community with her outreach efforts in fairly short order. She witnessed the Soyuz launch this last May, when she trekked to Baikonur to see Expedition 37 astronauts Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano roar into low-Earth orbit with cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. She currently shares updates about Parmitano’s Volare mission taking place on the International Space Station (ISS) on her Facebook page and her website. She has even been given the nod by space flight royalty, when met the last man on the Moon, Gene Cernan, said he believes she will be first on Mars.
We caught up with Astronaut Abby following the Atlantis Exhibit’s Grand Opening at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, where she conducted outreach efforts and also met some of her personal heroes. She discussed her passion for space, what ignited her interest, and what we can expect from her in the future.
AmericaSpace: First of all, it’s an honor to speak with you and we’re excited to have this opportunity to talk to you. First question: What really started you on the whole space thing? Is this something you’ve been interested in since you were very small?
Astronaut Abby: “I first became interested in space when I was very small. … I was probably about five years old. I just had an interest in the night sky. I used to look at it, think about it and I knew I was going to go there someday. I just knew that. A couple of years later, when I was around seven or eight, my dad gave me a book called The Universe. Or maybe I was six … it was right around the time I began to notice the sky, as well. So my dad gave me this book—it was this massive, coffee-table type book that was full of information and pictures. It was just beautiful. He used to read that to me at night. I just got more and more interested in space.”
“As I got older, through reading books and, just life, I noticed that going to space was something that was real, it was a career that was really an option. That was when I decided I wanted to be an astronaut.”
AmericaSpace: I know you have a goal where you’d like to be the first person to step on Mars. When did you have this exact goal, in so far as Mars? As a follow-up question, would you be interested in going to the Moon or an asteroid?
Astronaut Abby: “The Mars goal came up a little bit later. It was something I’ve always been interested in—Mars was a particular fascination of mine. Once I decided I wanted to be an astronaut and I started researching it, looking into it and generally knowing more about the space program—what we’ve done in the past and what was possible in the future—Mars was something that really stuck out to me as something that was important to help the space program go further and to increase technology there. There are so many reasons to go to Mars. Then there was just a lot of passion … the more I researched it and the more I learned, it was something that kept coming back … it was something that was like, ‘This is something that is really interesting—this is something really amazing.’ It was cool. I just felt it needed to be done.
“So that’s how I became interested in Mars. But I wouldn’t say no to a mission either to the Moon, to asteroids, or to near-earth objects. Anything we’re working on in the space program is obviously very valuable—there’s a different importance to each of these things. I feel that Mars is one of the most important, but there are obviously other missions of importance as well.”
AmericaSpace: We have a few rovers on Mars already. Do you think, in our lifetime, that we’ll have people going to the Red Planet?
Astronaut Abby: “I definitely think in our lifetime we’ll have people going to Mars … the reason why I say I think we’ll have this is because we already have the technology we need to do this. It’s just putting in initiative and stating a goal saying, ‘We’re actually going to do it.’ It’s something we have the ability to do and I think we just need to have a bigger push for it. I think that it’s something that should, and will happen in our lifetimes.”
AmericaSpace: I’m interested in talking to you about your outreach efforts. We’ve seen you at places such as Kennedy Space Center, talking to different groups. Who would you say your audience is? Is it adults and children, alike, or just younger people?
Astronaut Abby: “I think that’s an interesting question. … I definitely target both adults and children in my outreach. Certain parts of it are towards one or the other. A lot of the writing I do and a lot of the online aspects of what I do are targeted towards adults, but a lot of the other things—working in classrooms and with groups like I did at Kennedy Space Center—are more targeted towards grade school students. I think that it’s really important to inspire kids when they’re younger so there into space in their lives … they still have time to make these decisions and find something they’re interested in. That’s definitely an audience I’m focused on. I do hope to reach both adults and children.”
AmericaSpace: You’ve said you don’t want to be the first woman on Mars—you want to be the first astronaut on Mars. Can you clarify that for me?
Astronaut Abby: “The reason why I say, ‘I don’t want to be the first woman on Mars—I want to be the first astronaut on Mars; there’s a big difference,’ is because as I enter this field, I want to be viewed not for my gender or my sex, but for the work that I do—for the science, the engineering, and the things I do within the field of being an astronaut. I think that’s the best way to combat sexism among scientists … instead of looking at it as girls and boys or males and females, look at it as, ‘Look at this cool thing this scientist did.’”
AmericaSpace: You recently went to Baikonur to see the launch of Luca Parmitano, the Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency who currently calls the International Space Station his home. How would you rate that experience?
Astronaut Abby: “I would rate that experience as astronomical! There’s not a number I can put with that experience on a one to 10 scale to describe how awesome it was or how touching it was … it was just so phenomenal.
“It’s hard to describe. It was such a different experience from anything I expected, because you get extremely close to the rocket. You can feel the heat on your face as it launches. You can feel the ground shake. Then there is also the more personal aspect—I knew the astronaut; I knew the people on board who were going up there. It was more different from anything I had ever done and, as of now, it’s the most amazing thing I had ever seen.”
AmericaSpace: What can we expect from you in the future?
Astronaut Abby: “Something that I’m doing is starting my educational outreach. Right now I’ve already started it with things like the pen pal program … kids can sign up for the program and they get an email telling them about what’s going on up in the space station, in the space community, and what’s going on with Luca. That’s something I’ve already started.
“Come this fall, I’ll be starting my classroom visits. They’ll both be in classrooms and on Skype. I’ll be talking about my experience and my passion for space. I’ll also have a couple of other things: I’m starting a video series about the passion for jobs in the space community. There are a multitude of other items you can expect in the future.”
AmericaSpace: We saw that you were at the Atlantis opening at Kennedy Space Center on Saturday, June 29. I’m sure you had a chance to meet some astronauts there. What was that like and what did they say to you? Did they offer any advice or pointers?
Astronaut Abby: “When I was at the Atlantis opening, I got to meet a lot of really great astronauts and scientists as well … one was Wendy Lawrence, who was the first woman astronaut that I ever met. I met her two years ago … when I saw her again this year, it was great. I introduced myself and told her about what I was doing. She said, ‘Oh, I remember you!’ and she was just great and amazing … she kept telling me I’m going places. The most important thing I got from that—meeting these people this weekend—was the support that they believe I can do it. There are people who have done it who believe in me. That was really great!”
AmericaSpace: Let’s fast-forward in the future. Let’s say 15 or 20 years go by, and you’re stepping on Mars … what do you think will be your first thoughts?
Astronaut Abby: “That’s a really hard question to answer! I think when I step on Mars for the first time, something that I definitely will be thinking about … I’ll be thinking back to when I was five years old when I looked at the night sky and I noticed Mars for the first time. I’ll be thinking back to that first moment when I knew space was where I wanted to go and it was something I wanted to do. Then I’ll be thinking about everything that it has taken to get there. I know there has been a lot of hard work in my past, and there will be a tremendous amount more in my future. I think that when I step on Mars, I’ll be thinking of how it was all worth it.”
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