Abby on an MMU (Manned Maneouvring Unit) simulator at SpaceCamp in Huntsville, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of AstronautAbby.com)

Abby beside a full-scale model of Canadarm2

Abby beside a full-scale model of Canadarm2 at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters for the Canadian Space Agency STS-135 Tweetup, July 2011. (Photo courtesy AstronautAbby.com)

Abigail Harrison is a teenager with a mission, but not your average one: she wants to be the first astronaut to step foot on Mars in 2030. Even though such a mission is at least 17 years away and is, to say the least, tentative, Abby is already working hard to achieve that goal and spreading the word about the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education while she’s at it.

Before heading to Mars, however, Abby is planning a somewhat shorter but still very exciting trip. She has been invited by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano to attend his launch on board a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrone in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station on May 28, 2013. She will take a two-week trip from Minneapolis, Minnesota (where Abby lives) to Moscow, Russia and then to Baikonur to watch the launch. It won’t be a vacation for Abby, since she will be working hard to promote space and STEM education both during and after the trip – she plans to visit 2,000 classrooms as part of a six-month outreach campaign once she comes back from Russia. This will not be a cheap endeavour – Abby has to raise $35,000 to make this outreach happen. This is a huge undertaking for a high school student, but Abby is determined not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that she has dubbed her Soyuz Adventure.

I had a chance to talk to Abby about her upcoming Soyuz Adventure and her passion for space exploration and STEM education.

How did you get interested in space?

I’ve always really liked science, but my love of space started when I was about 5 and my dad gave me a big coffee table cook called The Universe. It was a huge book, about 600 pages and packed with beautiful color photos. I carried it everywhere – to school, to summer camps, to sleepovers, you name it! I just loved looking through it and became totally hooked on space. I’ve still got it, but it’s in several pieces now. It’s been well-loved!

What made you decide to speak out about space and STEM education?

From grades 5-8 I participated in an amazing program called GEMS – Girls in Engineering, Math and Science – that Minneapolis Public Schools operates. We got to do all sorts of cool stuff, like build robots and compete against other teams, participate in NASA’s weather balloon program and do lots of science experiments. GEMS also taught me how important it is to give back and be inspiring. Working with such smart, inspiring people made me want to do the same thing for others.

Abby and Luca Parmitano at the airport in Florida, May 2011

Abby and Luca Parmitano at the airport in Florida, May 2011. (Photo courtesy of AstronautAbby.com)

How did you connect with Luca Parmitano?

Well, that’s kind of a funny story. My mom and I went to the Kennedy Space Center in May 2011 to watch the launch of STS-134, the space shuttle Endeavour’s last flight to the International Space Station. My mom got to watch the launch from the area right behind the countdown clock, thanks to a NASA Tweetup she was a part of. I couldn’t go into that area because you had to be 18 years old. I was really bummed about that. :( While she was at the launch, my mom talked to Luca Parmitano, who’s an Italian astronaut with the European Space Agency. He’s going to be going up to the International Space Station at the end of May 2013 as part of Expedition 36 on board a Soyuz rocket. Luca had really wanted to meet me, but there was no time in his schedule for us to meet while he was in Florida. So I was pretty sad about that when we went to the airport to fly back home to Minnesota. But then, just a couple of people ahead of us in the airport security lineup, we saw Luca! My mom introduced me and we got to spend an hour chatting before our flights left. You can see a video of my interview with him here. We really got along well, and Luca has become my mentor. He’s kept in regular touch with me, encouraging me, offering me advice, and telling me how he became an astronaut. Even more than the shuttle launch, meeting Luca was the highlight of that trip. And then he invited me to see his launch!

What will you do when you go to watch the Soyuz launch?

We’ll be doing tours in Moscow, both space-related places like Russian Mission Control and other things like the Kremlin. You can’t go to such an amazing country like Russia and not go sightseeing! We will have five days in Baikonur, where the Russian spaceflight centre is located. While we are there we will get to see all of the launch facilities for the Soyuz rockets, where the rockets are assembled, and so much Russian space history. On the day of the launch, we get to be in the room where the astronauts say their final goodbyes before going out to the launch pad. And then we get to watch the launch! It’s really a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I’m really excited about getting to go. I’ll be really busy blogging, Tweeting, taking photos and videos, and writing articles on the trip, too.

Abby’s mentor, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano (left) with Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield in Baikonur

Abby’s mentor, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano (left) with Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield in Baikonur, just before Commander Hadfield’s launch to the International Space Station in December 2012. (Photo from NASA)

What are your plans for the future (other than going to Mars!)?

Luca gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever had: “follow your heart in your studies and do what you love.” Well, I love science, so no matter whether I become an astronaut or not, I want to have a career in science. Right now I’m looking at going to the Air Force Academy. I’m interested in helping to improve the world, because that’s what scientists do.

What kind of advice can you offer other teenagers out there?

I’ve met so many astronauts and other amazing people, and they all gave me the same advice: do what you love and love what you do. Really follow your passions, because that is what is going to make you happy. You absolutely can make a difference in the world if you really want to.

You can learn more about Abby’s Soyuz Adventure (and all sorts of other interesting space news!) by visiting her blog here.

Abby’s RocketHub campaign to raise funds for her trip to Baikonur Cosmodrone is here.

Finally, you can follow Abby on Twitter (@AstronautAbby) and Facebook.

Good luck, Abby!

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor is Acting Program Manager for CurioCity at Let’s Talk Science. He grew up watching bug-eyed monsters in sci-fi B-movies and dreaming of our future in space, and remembers being a young child watching the first astronauts walk on the Moon. Passionate about the importance of science education and understanding how science and technology impacts our society, he is still a sci-fi geek.    


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