Abigail Harrison has dreamed of the stars since she was five years old. While it’s not unusual for children to fantasize about space adventure, it is unusual to find one that pushes that dream so hard toward reality – or for so many years.
Now 19 and working on two undergraduate degrees at Wellesley, Harrison has been a tireless advocate of opening STEM fields to young women, and for the manned program to Mars. In fact, only a few days ago she gave a presentation to students in Dubai, UAE, as part of her Mars Generation advocacy. Her dreams have given way to a path that has been aided by mentors heavily involved in space exploration, and she has carved out a niche for herself and her journey online with Millennial pluck.
Harrison, who sits as board president of The Mars Generation, a non-profit organization aimed at keeping public enthusiasm high for an eventual Mars mission, told The Downlink she views her generation as heir apparent to the next wave of space exploration.
We talked to Harrison about public interest in space exploration, a possible human future on Mars and why women are such an important part of further space exploration.
The Downlink: Women represent a minority in the STEM fields, particularly engineering. What do you think the government should do to encourage more women to consider these fields? What do you think private industry should do to encourage women to join their workforces?
I think that we need to take action to interest more girls in STEM and especially the space industry. We know that girls lose interest in STEM subjects and careers in middle school — so we need to be targeting those ages with programs designed specifically for girls. Both the government and private industry can and should offer more financial support for mentoring and hands-on science and engineering programs that are specific to girls in middle school and high school. Both government and private industry should run media campaigns to show women in STEM careers, place women on panels and as speakers, and generally work to make women more visible in these fields. Doing so will give girls real role models that they can aspire to follow into STEM career fields.
What are the most important benefits you see of bringing more women into the fold for aerospace companies and institutions, and the sciences generally?
Harrison: By not including women in STEM, we are losing out on 50% of the brainpower available to us collectively as humanity. Perhaps the key to going to Mars — the answer to cosmic radiation protection, increased rocket technology, or something else — lies in a female brain. Also, diversity in STEM is always a positive thing. STEM is a field which is based in creativity and innovation. In order for innovation to happen we need to have different ideas and different ways of looking at what currently is and what could be. Women are a vital part of providing these different viewpoints in STEM.
Would you mind sharing a little of your own timeline and strategy for becoming a astronaut?
Right now I am pursuing a double major undergraduate degree in Astrobiology and Russian. Upon graduating, I plan to enter a PhD program for Astrobiology. After I receive my doctorate I will spend several years working in the field of Astrobiology as a scientist and then I will begin applying to the NASA astronaut corp. All together I am looking at 8-12 years out from now to apply to the NASA astronaut corp. During this time, I am doing other things to increase my appeal as a candidate. I am currently training for my private pilots license and plan to attain instrument ratings as well. I am also a PADI Rescue SCUBA diver and plan to pursue my SCUBA Master certification. I will also continue to study Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and begin to learn Arabic. Finally, I work to remain in top physical condition by running, dancing, playing ice hockey and rugby.
You’re the co-founder and board president of The Mars Generation, which advocates for a mission to the Red Planet. Based on the conversations you’ve had with your mentors, such as Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, as well as your own research, what are the most significant obstacles on your (and our) path to Mars?
I believe that the most significant challenge we face in going to Mars within our lifetimes is maintaining public interest, excitement, and support. I have no doubts that we will be able to solve the scientific and engineering challenges involved in a journey to Mars. Maintaining public interest, and continuity of focus, in a goal which is 20 years of hard work in the future is a much larger challenge. This is a big part of the work that my nonprofit, The Mars Generation, does. Exciting people about STEM and space exploration, and advocating for NASA’s Journey to Mars.
While many children dream of becoming astronauts, you’ve displayed remarkable drive and clarity, pursuing degrees in relevant science as well as learning Chinese and Russian. For those dreamers out there who struggle with maintaining direction, do you have any advice for staying on track?
My best advice for maintaining focus and drive towards a dream — especially one which may seem quite far out — is to have a plan (and write it down) but also to be fluid. Have a plan that you hope to follow, and landmarks that you aspire to achieve, but be open to changing that plan as your circumstances change. Life is always shifting. One day an unexpected opportunity might be thrown at you, whereas the next you might encounter what seems like an insurmountable road block to your goal. Don’t be dismayed if life causes you to change your plan. There are many paths to every goal.
Lt. Colonel Parmitano experienced a near-fatal water leak inside his helmet during an EVA mission on the ISS in February of 2014. By keeping calm, he was able to make his way back to the hatch. As a public figure, you must feel a decent amount of pressure to achieve the goals you’ve been so public about; how do you cope? Does it feel like women are counting on you to succeed, or are you able to approach your work as an individual trying to be responsible for your self?
I absolutely feel pressure to achieve my goals. I experience outside pressure from my family, who have given up so much for me and supported me relentlessly, from my professors, and from my worldwide community who have now joined me in my journey. There are two things which allow me to cope with this pressure. First, I know that I have an equal if not greater internal pressure pushing me towards my dreams. The moment you start doing something more for an outside pressure rather than for your own motivation is the moment you ought to reevaluate your plans. Secondly, I know that all of these people who expect big things from me believe in and care about me. I definitely think that women are counting on me to succeed. That was a big part of my decision to be vocal about my dreams at such a young age: to provide a role model for women and girls everywhere to achieve big things, pursue STEM careers, and change the world.
Abigail Harrison will graduate from Wellesley College in 2019, the next landmark in her journey to the stars. Follow her personal journey as an aspiring scientist and astronaut at www.AstronautAbby.com.