Most students spend their first month in college focused on making it through their classes in one piece, and maybe joining some clubs and organizations if they have time. But Abby Harrison, also known as “Astronaut Abby,” has never been like most students. In the first month of her first semester at Wellesley College, she started a nonprofit organization called The Mars Generation and began building it from the ground up.
“[Everything] locked into place, and it just happened to be my first month at Wellesley,” Harrison explained.
Yet it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision to create The Mars Generation, an organization that eagerly awaits the first human landing on the red planet. The idea had been percolating for a long time, and its mission fits with Harrison’s broader objectives of advocating for space exploration and cultivating enthusiasm for space among people of all ages. These goals, then, stem from her lifelong fascination with the universe beyond.
“As early as I can remember, before I even knew the words for astronaut, I knew I wanted to go to space,” Harrison said.
Did she ever entertain the possibility of another career, maybe toyed with being a doctor or a chemist? Definitely not, Harrison said. She had only wanted to be an astronaut.
It didn’t take long for her passion and drive to go public and to impact others. She set up the first @astronautabby social media account, a Twitter profile, when she was 13 years old. The handle then expanded to other social media sites, and soon the astronautabby.com webpage went live. People increasingly started paying attention – now, she has over a million followers over all her accounts, with nearly 200,000 on Twitter alone.
Across her sites, Harrison shares her achievements and accolades from her personal journey toward becoming an astronaut and tries to inspire curiosity in others about space and STEM fields in general.
Her persona has earned her accolades and acknowledgment from organizations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Kennedy Space Center and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, among many others. Notably, she was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list of top young visionaries in the U.S. Still, what remains most important to Harrison is furthering her mission.
“It’s not something I’ve ever done looking for awards,” she said. However, she appreciates the credibility and platform it lends to her efforts.
Of course, maintaining Harrison’s “Astronaut Abby” presence is a huge investment of time – which is tough when you’re a full-time Wellesley student. And apart from just updating her online presence with work done from Wellesley, she travels four to five times a semester for appearances and advocacy work around the world, most of the time taking red-eye flights so that she doesn’t have to miss class.
Occasionally, Harrison does have to sacrifice her academics, explaining that she might accept a lower grade on an assignment or be less prepared than she would like for an exam because of her Astronaut Abby or Mars Generation commitments. It’s a tough choice and one that she thinks through carefully every time.
Harrison said she sometimes has to ask herself, “Can I do everything, and if not, what do I need to drop? It’s a give and take.”
Overall, though, she’s done a remarkable job of striking that balance and is grateful for the preparation her Wellesley education has provided for her future. One faculty member has been particularly influential.
“Wes Watters is an amazing professor, and he’s strongly impacted my future academic plans,” Harrison said, adding that his advanced geophysics and planetary sciences course influenced the field of astronomy she wants to specialize in after graduation.
She is quick to admit that she can’t handle school and Astronaut Abby entirely by herself.
“I have a lot of people who help me,” Harrison said.
The Mars Generation staff has been a significant source of support. Harrison has hired Wellesley students to help with aspects such as digital management, video production and editing as well as scriptwriting. All of the positions are paid, because she believes internship opportunities should be available to everyone, regardless of their economic situation. The team helped Mars Generation facilitate one of the most meaningful accomplishments she’s had so far – sending kids to U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
“It’s not the most wide-reaching program, but it’s the one that’s closest to my heart,” said Harrison.
Mars Generation, with the help of its sponsors, sent 10 students on full scholarships to Space Camp its first year, another 10 students the next and then were able to get to 16 this past year.
It’s just one of many ways she’s worked so that kids can have a career in STEM as promising as her own. Harrison will be graduating soon, and she knows exactly what she wants her future to look like – she’s going to be the first person to land on Mars. That means that her education post-Wellesley will involve a Ph.D. program on planetary science with a biology focus.
But first, she’s looking for a change of pace. Understandably, Harrison is “a little bit tired” of school and plans to spend time traveling and backpacking through Russia and China for her upcoming gap year. Still, she’s careful to emphasize that it won’t be for any longer than one year, then she wants to get right back to work. After all, she’s Astronaut Abby – the only way she knows is up.