On Nov. 12, aspiring astronaut Kristi Kuutti participated in the Potato Challenge by posting a selfie of herself holding a potato with the caption, “Dreaming about what food I will eat after #PotatoChallenge like astronauts do.” Kuutti was one of the many participants who participated in a social media campaign, the Potato Challenge, started to raise awareness about the work and to raise funds to support the three main programs of the organization.
The challenge benefited The Mars Generation, a non-profit organization, which was launched by current Wellesley student Abigail Harrison ’19 on a mission to get, as Robert Pearlman writes in his article “Launching the ‘Mars Generation’: Teen on Mission to Get People to Mars,” “people of all ages excited and educated about what it means to be a member of the generation that will land humans on Mars.” Joined by astronauts, space program workers, social media experts and others, Harrison is devoted to raising awareness and recognizing the importance of space exploration.
Harrison, who is also identified as ‘Astronaut Abby’ on social media, spearheaded the challenge. According to Harrison, The Mars Generation will eventually run three main programs: the Space Ambassador program for high school and college students, the Future of Space outreach program and a Space Camp scholarship program for underprivileged students. The group used the Minnesota Give to the Max day as a starting point to develop their own Give to Mars Day and the #PotatoChallenge was a key part of raising money for these programs.
Harrison explained that the campaign was inspired by the book and movie The Martian, in which the main character is left abandoned on Mars and forced to use his botanical skills to grow potatoes until he can be rescued.
“In the Martian, the main character, fictional Mars astronaut Mark Watney, is stranded on Mars and subsists by growing and eating potatoes,” Harrison explained.
Harrison believes this project ingeniously combines pop culture and social media to raise awareness and fund science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
“The really cool thing about the Potato Challenge is that it combines pop culture and social media with important STEM work. It’s a fun, silly and new method to raise awareness and funds for STEM education,” Harrison said.
Her Potato Challenge reeled in an impressive amount of support from all social media outlets, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google Plus. According to TheMarsGeneration.org, the hashtag was mentioned in over 4,000 tweets and was able to raise more than $7,000 from over 150 donors.
On the same day, Harrison hosted a Twitter conversation under the hashtag #MarsChat, demystifying some of the unknowns about Mars. She fielded questions from students and adults about the challenges of going to Mars, bringing humans to Mars in the Orion spacecraft and even making Mars a habitable planet in the future.
According to Harrison, the Potato Challenge shouldn’t just be limited to those interested in space, but to a greater audience, even to the students at Wellesley. She stated that this campaign is an important one for those who believe in the importance of education, especially in STEM. “As students at one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the world, we understand the importance of education, and especially of a broad education. This is exactly the mission of The Mars Generation: to educate and excite the public about the often overlooked STEM fields,” Harrison said.
The Mars Generation is still taking donations and encourages everyone to share their mission by donating on their website. They plan on hosting another Give to Mars Day, hoping to inspire and inform more people about the importance of STEM and space exploration to Mars.