It was nothing short of fate when Abigail Harrison spotted her hero, astronaut Luca Parmitano, in an airport security line.
At just 15 years old, Harrison knows what she wants to do with her life: become the first astronaut on Mars in 2030. And the ever-so-keen Harrison — a well-spoken Minnesota high school student who has a confidence that doesn't come naturally to most teenagers — knew picking Parmitano's brain would bring her one step closer.
"He had an hour before flight, and we talked for the whole time," she tells Mashable. "He was really interested in my dream and wanted to stay in touch."
Parmitano lived up to his promise, and now the two are undertaking an unprecedented project. When Parmitano travels to the International Space Station on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft this May, Harrison will serve as his Earth-based liaison.
Each day, Parmitano will correspond via email with Harrison, who will in turn distribute his photos, video and research to the world on her blog. Their hope is to continue the buzz thatTwitter's favorite astronaut Chris Hadfield, who returns to Earth in May, has generated while on the ISS.
"Commander Hadfield has done such amazing job of getting the public interested in the ISS, and we don't want that to go away when he comes back down," she says. "Luca is going to carry on the flag."
Harrison, who operates under the online persona "Astronaut Abby," has already amassed an impressive following. \Harrison's niche celebrity, though, wasn't her original intention. It all started with an eighth-grade project she was doing about the ISS.
"My mom helped me set up Twitter to get in touch with NASA employees for quotes," she says. "So I started sharing pictures of projects I was working on and writing about my dreams."
NASA and other influencers in the space community took notice and helped fill her plate with projects. Harrison now travels around the country promoting space and STEM careers in schools. She's introducing a pen-pal program in which she'll send readers personal emails about her experiences. This August, she will speak at a convention for the Mars Society about her No. 1 love: the importance of putting a human on the Red Planet.
"I was raised on a diet of sci-fi and Star Wars, but the science drew me," Harrison says. "The curiosity of the unknown is why I'm focused on Mars. There is so much we can learn; it's just an outstanding amount of knowledge waiting there for us to discover."
Even as she manages these projects, her public-facing appearance and an upcoming trip to Russia for Parmitano's launch, Harrison is still a kid. She's studying hard to get into her college of choice — she plans to double major in biology and geology — and has social plans for the summer.
So she relies heavily on her mother, Nicole, who says she knew her daughter's space aspiration was not merely a childhood fascination.
"I told her [...] if she was serious she needs to research what it would take because it's a very hard career to attain," Mrs. Harrison tells Mashable via email.
"She came back a week later with two sheets of paper and said, 'Mom there are two ways to become an astronaut: civilian and military. Here are the two paths and this is what I am going to do to make my dream happen.'"
Today, Mrs. Harrison helps her daughter with article ideas, editing and publishing her posts, and assisting her on social outreach to make sure her news is getting out in a timely manner. Perhaps most importantly, Mrs. Harrison reviews and monitors all of her daughter's communications.
"Reaching out to budding scientists and kids around the globe is what really drives Abby to chase her dreams. I've been so inspired by her as she continues to achieve her goals," Mrs. Harrison says. "At the rate she is going, I have no doubt she'll be the first astronaut on Mars."
Images courtesy of Abigail/Nicole Harrison