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May 09 2017
by Katie Czerwinski

This College Student Plans to Be the First Person on Mars

By Katie Czerwinski - May 09 2017

Some people say the sky’s the limit, but for Abby Harrison, that’s only the starting point. Harrison, also known as “Astronaut Abby,” is a member of the class of 2019 at Wellesley College and an aspiring NASA astronaut who hopes to be the first person on Mars.

Harrison is part of a Netflix documentary, “The Mars Generation,” released May 5. The documentary focuses on Harrison and other aspiring young astronauts who hope to make it to Mars. It also features prominent figures in the science community, including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

The documentary’s name stems from Harrison’s nonprofit, The Mars Generation, which launched in 2015. The organization encourages young people to pursue space and STEM careers and emphasizes the importance of space exploration. It also identifies students who are interested in STEM to nurture them and help them pursue their education. According to Harrison, her outreach with The Mars Generation now reaches 10 million people around the world.

The concept originated when Harrison attended Space Camp for the first time at age 12 with the support of a local nonprofit that sent her to the camp as part of a group. She soon realized that she, too, could share the experience she received from Space Camp with other kids.

“I was embraced by the space community because I was a little kid with a big dream and I was not afraid to talk about it,” Harrison told Fresh U via email.

She said that her “big dream” had always been focused on space.  

“From my earliest childhood memories, I remember looking up at the night sky in wonder about what was out there,” Harrison said. “I knew I would someday go to space. I didn’t know how or when but I knew it was what I was meant to do.”

Around the age of five, she learned there was a way she could actually fulfill those dreams: by becoming an astronaut.

To accomplish that, Harrison has dedicated a significant amount of time to her education and work experience to prove she’s a suitable candidate to the astronaut corps — a selection group for potential astronauts. By age 14, she had been a guest blogger at NASA and was featured on the organization’s education website.

Now 19 years old, Harrison studies astrobiology as well as Russian, the language that astronauts are trained to learn once commissioned. She has 174,000 followers on Twitter and almost 40,000 followers on her Instagram account, where she shares even more details of her journey to Mars.

Harrison plans to first finish her education and build her career before pursuing her dreams as an astronaut. She hopes to finish her undergraduate work, earn a Ph.D. and become a scientist.

But she doesn’t stop there. Aside from academic work, Harrison has advanced scuba certifications and is in the process of earning her private pilot license, which are both essential in her trek to become an astronaut.

With her aspirations so high, it hasn’t always been easy for Harrison. One of her biggest challenges came last year, when she suffered a concussion from competitive diving. Harrison spent several weeks on cognitive rest — that meant no screens, no attending classes. She was falling behind, but she didn’t let that sidetrack her goals. Once she had recovered, she put her best foot forward to catch up and get back on track.

“I find challenges are good because they push you beyond your limits and require you to learn more about yourself,” Harrison said. “They also force you to pull from an inner reserve of strength and make you stronger.”

She plans to use her recent challenges as motivation for one of the most daunting challenges of all: being the first astronaut on Mars.

“Mars is a perfect next step for humanity to take in human space exploration,” Harrison said. “It is difficult enough to really challenge humans, to push us outside of our comfort zone and force us to innovate. However, it is not so difficult as to be impossible.”

Harrison said she will be the one to accomplish this feat first because of her character.

“I am the kind of person that once I commit myself to something I will see it through, no matter the time, cost or effort,” Harrison said. “Because I was very vocal about my dreams from a young age, I have had lots of encouragement from others. This ranges from my mom, who is my biggest supporter, to people around the world who I have never met in person but who have told me they believe in me.”

She thinks she can bring this type of encouragement and education to a more global scale.

“The more people who understand why space exploration is essential to our future as a nation and for all humankind to survive, the more people can share with others and help educate others,” Harrison said. “We need public support to get funding for space exploration and The Mars Generation is part of helping to gain the mass public support that is needed.”

She hopes she and her organization will be an inspiration for more people to follow in her footsteps. For those with similar dreams, Harrison has one piece of advice: “be loud and proud.”

“If you are not vocal about your dreams, how will others know when and how to support you?” she said. “Being vocal about your goals and dreams also forces you to be confident in them, which can be an important step to take.”

As for her future plans, Harrison believes she’s just one factor in the mission to send an astronaut to Mars.

“When we get to Mars, it won’t be because of me or any other single person, it will be because of humanity as a whole,” she said. “I’m just trying to do my small part in making sure the humanity of tomorrow is one which we can be proud of.”

Lead Image Credit: Astronaut Abby via Facebook

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Katie Czerwinski - Syracuse University

Katie Czerwinski is a senior at Syracuse University studying magazine with a minor in psychology. She is obsessed with pineapples, long naps, and cooking shows. Follow her on Instagram @katie.czerwinski or on Twitter @katieczerwinski

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