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19-Year-Old Shoots For The Stars

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Abby Harrison shoots for the stars—literally.

 

Since age 5, the Wellesley student has dreamed of becoming the first astronaut on Mars. Now, she runs The Mars Generation (or TMG), a nonprofit dedicated to igniting interest in space and STEM (that’s science, technology, engineering, and math) in both kids and adults. The organization offers several programs to engage the community and encourages its “space ambassadors” to volunteer at STEM events, submit space-related blog posts for publication and create TMG chapters at their schools.

 

TMG, which Harrison founded a month after starting at Wellesley, reached more than 10 million people in its first year, according to its website. Now Harrison spends about 15 to 20 hours a week working on TMG projects, including developing social media content and keeping up with all space-related news. Harrison told USACollegeToday, “You give up things you personally want to do in order to further something you believe in, but it ends up being worth it”.

 

TMG also provides complete scholarships to Space Camp, a U.S. Space and Rocket Center program in  Alabama that educates kids and adults in STEM subjects, thanks to funding from individual donors and some corporate sponsors. Harrison herself received a scholarship to attend Space Camp, and it remains an especially powerful experience in her own life.A

 

“It was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by young people with similar aspirations and dreams,” says Harrison. “It’s so important to include in TMG because it has the capacity to light a spark in people to change their community.”

 

Harrison’s idea to create the nonprofit first originated after working with Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano at age 15, an experience she landed after a chance encounter with him at an airport led to him becoming her mentor, according to her website. As Parmitano’s earth liaison, Harrison developed public outreach efforts to share Parmitano’s experience aboard the International Space Station with communities he hadn’t yet reached. Those efforts became the foundation for TMG.

 

“She has built something that will keep kids inspired,” says Dave Blackburn, who has known Harrison since he served as her science coach in fifth grade. “She is persistent — she will grab onto something and keep at it.”

 

Harrison’s large social media following also helped create awareness for the nonprofit. When she was 13, she tried to get a quote from a NASA engineer for her school project on the International Space Station. After reaching out to NASA employees under her Twitter handle and childhood nickname “Astronaut Abby,” she not only got a phone interview with a NASA employee, she also won the hearts of many in the online space community. “They liked that I had a big dream at such a young age,” says Harrison, who still tweets under @AstronautAbby daily.

 

Now, she wants to inspire other kids to pursue their own dreams and realize the value of STEM subjects and space exploration. “Students would ask how they could be involved and make a difference,” Harrison says. “Knowing young people were interested in community action, we decided TMG should empower kids to go out and be changers.”

 

A 10-year-old suffering from a rare blood disease recently reached out to Harrison to tell her she’d been inspired by her work. “She made a video saying I made her believe that even though she has this illness, she can do something great,” Harrison says. “When people tell you you’ve made a significant difference in their life, there’s nothing more fulfilling than that.”

 

Harrison also inspires younger kids to join her quest to Mars in her everyday life. When she’s not studying or working on TMG, the astrobiology and Russian double major also scuba dives, completes pilot license training and learns foreign languages, all activities she says are essential in training to become the first astronaut on Mars. She even lives in a special dorm area where students speak only Russian to improve their language skills.

 

“She’s incredibly focused,” says former NASA astronaut and Navy helicopter pilot Wendy Lawrence, who serves on the advisory board of TMG. “If you have perseverance and determination, you can draw down inside yourself, focus on the steps and keep pushing forward. Abby embodies all of that.”

 

And Harrison plans to keep shooting for the stars. She’s been invited to do research at the Kennedy Space Center this summer. So what advice does she have for younger students hoping to follow in her footsteps? “There are so many different paths to reach your dream,” Harrison says. “Take the path that will be enjoyable and fits you rather than the one you think you have to take.”

 

This article was first posted on USACollegeToday.

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