You can’t accuse Abby Harrison of not planning ahead. She’s 15 and still in braces, but she’s planning to be on a mission to Mars, something not likely to happen until at least 2030.
For now, she’s a sophomore at South High School in Minneapolis, where she’s tackling pre-calc and principles of engineering. She’s already attended one NASA launch, four space camps in Alabama, and is crowdsourcing for money to attend a Soyuz launch in May.
She’s a product of the district’s program to interest girls in science and engineering, and she credits science teachers at Hale and Field for fostering her interest in the skies.
But lest you think she’s a Johanna-come-lately to space travel, consider this: When Harrison was 5, her father, Randy, a computer programmer and “major science-fiction nerd,” gave her a hefty coffee-table book called “The Universe.”
“She would carry it around with her,” mom Nicole said, showing people the photos even before she could read.
That interest blossomed in a more structured way when she hit fifth grade at Field Community School. There she found the Girls in Engineering Math and Science, or GEMS program, developed by teacher Brad Blue in the late 1990s to offset the shortage of women entering those fields.
Field teacher Mary Hill recalls Harrison coming into her fifth-grade science classroom and announcing her intention to become an astrophysicist. When Harrison moved on to South after four years of GEMS, she returned to Field as a GEMS mentor.
Other mentors who guided Harrison include Dave Blackburn, who teaches chemistry at Century College and met Harrison through his daughter, a classmate. He worked with her on her History Day project on the International Space Station, which made it to the state competition. He said girls like her are far ahead of students from his day in their technical interests. “I had never thought of engineering at age 15 as anything other than driving trains,” he said.
Now that she’s in high school, Harrison’s studies are becoming more demanding. She’s enrolled in an engineering prep program, and she credits math teacher Betty Kemmetmueller with easing her transition to higher math. “The way that she teaches it has really influenced me,” Harrison said.
Harrison has developed a talent for networking with adults. When they went to witness a launch in Florida, her mother met Luca Parmitano, an Italian and European Space Agency astronaut, and then met him again at the airport, where Abby interviewed him for the online space-oriented publications for which she writes.
He’s now her informal mentor. He’s invited her to Russia in May for his scheduled maiden launch into space as a Soyuz flight engineer. She’s raised $5,600 toward that trip, and she’ll be tweeting and Facebooking from links off her astronautabby.com Web page.
That’s going to take far more than the money she raises baby-sitting, something that’s helped to finance her trips to Space Camp USA in Huntsville, Ala. Last year, a donor helped her attend a 40th reunion for the Apollo 17 astronauts, who were on the last manned flight to the moon.
From Soyuz to Mars
Looking beyond the Soyuz launch, she plans to make classroom visits to share her experiences with the generation of grade-schoolers behind her.
She knows she wants to double major in microbiology and geology, a combination she hopes will prepare her well should humans set foot on Mars in search of evidence of previous life-forms. She’s thinking of the Air Force Academy, for which she is keeping fit with 15 hours a week of gymnastics training. Once she earns a doctorate, she’s hoping to work at a research center.
“Then it’s just applying and applying and applying until you get in,” she said of her plans to join the astronaut corps, now at more than 50 members.
If she needs inspiration, she need look no farther than Robert Cabana. The graduate of Washburn High School and four-time shuttle astronaut now directs Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And St. Paul can boast of Duane “Digger” Carey, who went into space in 2002 and is a Highland Park High School graduate.