‘Astronaut Abby’ Update: One Small Step for Abby, One Giant Leap for Her Goal

2:43 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

I’ve been covering aspiring astronaut Abigail “Astronaut Abby” Harrison’s career for years here on Airplanista, and have always practiced her signature tagline to “Dream Big, Act Big and Inspire Others.” She is a textbook example of someone who has set a lofty goal, and is working through all the steps necessary to achieve that goal. And her goal/dream is quite lofty:
To not only become an astronaut, but to be the first astronaut to Mars.
Abby recently earned her private pilot’s license, an important “step” in becoming an astronaut. Astronauts are really just seriously advanced pilots, and when you look back through the history of NASA, being a pilot has always been a prerequisite to eventually encountering and overcoming the challenges of space travel.
We can all learn a lot from Abby, so I thought now that she’s a licensed pilot, it was a good time for another virtual sit-down with her. If you read every word of the following interview and are not inspired to get out there and push hard toward your own goals, you might want to see a doctor and have your pulse checked. When you look at what this brilliant young woman has accomplished in her young life, you too cannot help but to be inspired. I am going to assume that just reading a printout of her daily schedule would make most of us exhausted.

AIRPLANISTA: Let’s start with clarifying your quest to get to Mars. Is it your goal to be the very first astronaut to set foot there, the first female astronaut, or just one of the astronauts to eventually get there?
ABBY: My goal is to be the first astronaut to walk on Mars. To state that I want to be the first female to walk on Mars assume that a man may have the opportunity first. I can’t predict the future of course, but I can certainly dream of being first and do everything in my power to make that a reality. 

Abby earned her private pilot's license this year, a crucial first step to becoming an astronaut.
AIRPLANISTA: Everyone knows that becoming an astronaut is a long and difficult process. Since you just earned your private pilot’s license, that is an obvious step. Walk my readers through the remaining steps, from today through setting foot on Mars. What exactly will have to happen to being chosen for that mission?
ABBY: I just graduated from Wellesley College with my undergraduate degree in biology and Russian Studies. My next step will be attending grad school to earn a PhD in either astrobiology or planetary sciences/geophysics. After earning my PhD I will focus on advancing my career as a scientist.
Education and work experience are the most important part of becoming an astronaut, but in addition I plan to continue pursuing experience in other areas that will strengthen my application for the NASA astronaut corp and eventually the first mission to Mars. While I already speak Russian and Mandarin Chinese, I plan to learn other languages which will aid in what will likely be a multinational mission.
I also intend to continue fly and get more advanced ratings such as instrument, multi-engine, and helicopter. Over the next couple years, I plan to obtain my skydiving certification, continue with more advanced SCUBA diving certifications, and partake in extreme environment simulations and expeditions. The path towards becoming an astronaut can be very different for every individual pursuing it, but what does remain constant is the pursuit of excellence and diverse experience.
I will begin to apply for the NASA astronaut corps once I complete my PhD. Astronaut selection is highly competitive, in 2017 over 18,000 people applied for 12 slots, so it’s very common to apply multiple times. If I am selected, I would then be considered an astronaut candidate (ASCAN) and go through up to two years of training before being commissioned as an astronaut. Once commissioned, astronauts continue to train while waiting to be placed on a mission. Astronauts do not get to select what mission they go on, so whether I would go to Mars or not will not be my choice. Currently there is not an official mission to Mars planned but hopefully that will change within the next 15 - 20 years.

AIRPLANISTA: A recent release about earning your private ticket indicates you are a “pilot, scuba diver, sky diver, marathoner, research astrobiologist, student of Russian and Mandarin Chinese, and science communicator.” Along with being a full-time student, speaker and advocate for STEM education, please tell us your secret to time management. How on Earth can any one human do all this stuff at once?
ABBY: Time management is definitely a skill that I continue to work on mastering. So far what I’ve learned is that delegating and asking for help when you need it is important. It’s also important to recognize that you can’t do everything and it’s ok to say no to myself and to others.
I am also fortunate to have a team of professionals who volunteer their time to help me make my nonprofit, The Mars Generation, a success. From a personal standpoint, I try to remember that when you have a long-term dream, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important to take care of your health, both physically and mentally. I do this by having a diverse set of interests ranging between STEM subjects, arts, and athletics- this helps me avoid burnout.  

AIRPLANISTA: On the topic of STEM education – especially for young females – talk about how important it is for girls to becoming more active in these subjects, and how having more females in these roles will ultimately help the aviation/aerospace sector overall.
ABBY: Women and girls have an amazing amount of potential to offer to the aviation/aerospace fields, so encouraging more women to take an interest and then also supporting them as they do so will be essential to creating a future where we can do great things like going to Mars. Having more women in STEM fields is also incredibly important because they serve as role models for the girls growing up today, allowing them to see that they can be and do anything that they dream of.

AIRPLANISTA: Define what “The Mars Generation” is, and give me both background and future plans for the organization.
ABBY: The Mars Generation is a non-profit, which I founded when I was 18 years old. Now, in our fourth year, we have reached millions of people around the world with our STEAM educational programming. We run a variety of programs, such as Future of Space Outreach, Student Space Ambassador Leadership, and Space Camp Scholarships. Our Future of Space Outreach program utilizes digital media to reach people all around the world with information and inspiration about space and STEM.
For example, we run an awards program where we honor and offer public exposure for young people who are making an impact on their communities as leaders in space and STEM. The nomination period is now open for the the class of 2020 awards. Our Student Space Ambassador Leadership program encourages and supports young people around the world to be advocates for STEM education to their communities in unique ways. We especially encourage our ambassadors to merge the arts into STEM subjects (the “A” part of STEAM). For example, one of our ambassadors has inspired campaigns which have raised over 100,000$ to fund girls seeing movies with positive female STEM representation. We worked with another of our ambassadors to write, illustrate, and publish a coloring book featuring female representation in future missions to Mars. Finally, our Space Camp Scholarship program provides scholarships to students with an interest and aptitude in STEM who are living at or below the national poverty line to attend Space Camp.

AIRPLANISTA: If you can give only one piece of advice to a ‘tween” girl about their future, what would that be?
ABBY: Don’t be afraid to fail. As girls, we’re often socialized to believe that failure is a negative thing and that it indicates that we’re not cut out for certain fields. But the truth of the matter is that failure is actually a normal and important part of learning and growing. Everybody fails at some point. Doing so teaches us not that we’re not fit for whatever we were trying, but rather guides us in what we need to do to become the best fit. Because STEM fields have a higher level of intrinsic failure, women tend to self-select out of them. By normalizing and understanding the importance of failure, we can help girls to feel more comfortable and confident in pursuing whatever future she wants to.

AIRPLANISTA: In your relatively short life, you have obviously accomplished a lot. What is one of the important life lessons you have learned so far?
ABBY: I’ve learned how important it is to talk about your goals. By talking about your goals, you can build a community of people who understand and support you in achieving them. While believing in yourself is important, sometimes we need other people to believe in us as well, and talking about your goals allows them to do so.

Let’s crystal ball the space industry. Right now, SpaceX is making big strides in the commercialization of space, and others are right there too, with private passenger flights coming soon. NASA just announced space tourism opportunities to allow the mega-rich to pay millions to stay at the ISS for 30 day “missions.” So let’s look out five years and tell me what you see, and then project what “space travel” will look like in 20 years, so the year 2039.
ABBY: Nobody can predict the future, especially with an industry as variable as spaceflight. However, I am excited as the 21st century is an incredible time to be alive and experience the commercialization of space travel. I sincerely hope that we’ll see private space flight take off in the next five years, and that in the next 20 it will become widely accessible to the general public.

AIRPLANISTA: Let’s assume you achieve your goal of being chosen for a “crewed” flight to Mars. We all know that is going to be a rigorous, long ride. What concerns you about getting from Earth to Mars, and what do you fear about the mission?
ABBY: Of course there’s a lot of danger associated with a crewed Mars mission but I believe that the benefits outweigh the dangers and difficulties. I believe one of the biggest dangers for the crew will be radiation - we still don’t know how to protect organic life from the unpredictable radiation of space, and it’s one of the health concerns that is most difficult to treat or reverse upon return.

AIRPLANISTA: Use this question to add anything else you think my readers would find interesting about your life, your goals or space travel.
To continue to advance in space exploration it’s important that we view it as a collaborative effort. We’ll need to have cooperation from around the world, cooperation in private and public industry, and definitely strong diversity in the people making it happen.

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