'Astronaut Abby' is crowdfunding her way to outer space

  • Article by: MORGAN MERCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 20, 2013 - 3:15 PM

Meet Abby: Normal teenager, wears braces, loves gymnastics, planning a mission to Mars.

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Abby Harrison’s room shows her passion for space exploration. She’ll soon travel to Kazakhstan to watch the launch of the Soyuz TMA-09M.

Photo: MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

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At 15 years old, Abby Harrison doesn’t have a driver’s license. But unlike most other teenagers pining for a car, Harrison’s eyes are set on a completely different mode of transportation — a spacecraft.

The teen’s bedroom says it all: Her walls are covered with autographed astronaut photos and posters of rocket ships; books about space exploration are stacked on her desk. She even has a blue flight suit hanging in her closet.

“I’ve always looked up at the sky and wanted to go there,” said Harrison, a Minneapolis sophomore. “I want to be the first astronaut on Mars.”

Her dream is a big one, but the teen is well on her way to achieving it. Online, Harrison is known as Astronaut Abby, a space celebrity in the making. She has more than 8,000 followers on Twitter and almost 2,000 likes on Facebook.

This week, she’s traveling to Kazakhstan to watch the launch of the Soyuz TMA-09M, a Russian craft headed for the International Space Station on May 28. She’s used her social media prowess to spearhead a successful Kickstarter-like crowdfunding campaign, raising more than $30,000 to help pay for the rare trip.

While she’s only watching this time, her community of supporters is convinced Harrison’s next milestone will be in the stars.

“Abby’s going to be on Mars,” said her fifth-grade science teacher, Mary Hill. “She will go as far as anyone can go.”

Chasing space dreams

By the time Harrison was 6 years old, she was already dreaming about being an “astronavigator.” Her bedtime story of choice was a massive coffee-table book about the universe. In fifth grade, Harrison decided she wanted to be an astrophysicist. By the end of sixth grade she had an action plan.

“She had two pieces of paper and she said, ‘There are two ways to become an astronaut: civilian and military. Here is the path in each way,’ ” said her mother, Nicole Harrison.

The elder Harrison describes herself as a “space mom,” involved in every step of her daughter’s off-world goals. The marketing specialist helped create the Astronaut Abby website. She manages her daughter’s busy schedule and accompanies the teen to astronaut events.

The younger Harrison’s passion really blasted off after meeting Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano in 2011. The two were both in attendance for NASA’s final launch of the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-134) off the Florida coast. Harrison bumped into Parmitano by chance while waiting in an airport security line.

“When I met Abby the first time, she was barely a teenager,” said Parmitano by e-mail. “But I was smitten by her enthusiasm for space flight, her ardent desire to experience it and be a part of space exploration, and her unusual maturity.”

The pair talked for an hour and the conversation kicked off a two-year mentorship via e-mail, Twitter and Skype.

“I believe in myself,” Harrison said. “But it means something special that someone else who has already made it believes in me also.”

Her attendance at the Soyuz launch next week came at the personal invitation of Parmitano, one of the three astronauts set to board the flight. For Harrison, the #soyuzadventure (as she’s calling it on Twitter) is no vacation. She’ll be blogging, tweeting and shooting video every step of the journey to share with her growing Internet audience.

When Harrison returns from Kazakhstan, she’ll embark on a six-month outreach campaign in which she’ll write for national science magazines, share her experience in classroom visits and speak at space conferences like the Mars Society’s annual convention this summer in Colorado. The teen will also serve as Parmitano’s Earth liaison — talking with the astronaut daily in order to pass along updates via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

The social space scene

Harrison and her mom run a well-oiled social media machine that has convinced more than 450 people from around the world to contribute money to help the teen get to Kazakhstan. Instead of Kickstarter, Harrison used the appropriately named RocketHub, a crowdfunding website where users can donate money to a number of projects.

“Everyone has $20 to give to a good cause, if only they knew what that cause was,” said Sean Costello, a Canadian businessman backing Harrison’s dream on the site. Social media gives people an outlet to find that cause, he said.

Harrison’s campaign reached its goal of $35,000 a few days ago.

The teen first used social media to help her connect with a NASA employee for an eighth-grade history project about the International Space Station. One tweet later and Harrison was on the phone talking to a NASA engineer. That’s when she realized a community of people existed online who loved space just as much as she did.

Mick Hamilton, Harrison’s AP biology teacher at South High School, said the teen’s love for space shows other students that “science can be cool.”

“She’s not afraid to let her space-nerd flag fly,” Hamilton said.

Harrison does have other interests. When she’s not dreaming about Mars, she dedicates her time to gymnastics. But even with that sport, she sees a connection to her larger ambitions.

“[More] than just gaining physical strength and being healthy, gymnastics is helping prepare me for a future [in space],” Harrison said recently, after finishing a two-hour private lesson at Elite Gymnastics Academy.

But she’s put her 15-hour-a-week workouts on hold as she travels to Kazakhstan and prepares to send her mentor off into space.

“It’s possibly the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Harrison said.

Well, the coolest thing until she lands on Mars, of course.

 

Morgan Mercer is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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