Abby Harrison had Martian dreams from a young age. At age 22, she's already rocketing toward space as a scientist and founder of The Mars Generation.

Abby Harrison was 16 when she took her first flying lesson. Becoming a pilot was one of the smaller goals she had set for herself as part of her dream to become the first astronaut to set foot on Mars. Yet, she recalled in a recent interview with Rebel Girls Boundless, the male pilot who took her on that first “discovery flight”’ dismissed her efforts as a waste of time. In 20 years, he predicted, Harrison would become a mom and give up on her ambitions.

“I told him that this was his opinion and it didn’t apply to me or other women, and that he underestimated my capabilities. And that having a family wouldn’t preclude achieving my goals,” Harrison said. She was so convincing that, “when we landed, he told me he believed he would see me walking on Mars.”

Sure enough, Harrison became a pilot in 2019 at age 22, shortly before graduating with a degree in biology and Russian at Wellesley College. During that time, Harrison also learned how to code, and started a nonprofit foundation called The Mars Generation which aims to inspire young girls and minorities to enter science and technology fields, fields, empowering a future generation of women in STEM. She also interned twice as an astrobiologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Lab in Florida. In the meantime, Harrison built a social media presence with 1 million followers as @AstronautAbby. She has become a powerful role model for girls and women in science.

Outer space dreams at an early age 

Harrison first dreamt about becoming an astronaut when she was 5 years old and never let go of such ambition, her mom, Nicole Harrison, told Boundless. When Harrison turned 11, Nicole sat her down and explained that she should develop a plan for pursuing such a big, difficult dream. 

Undeterred, Harrison came up with a plan the next day: she would become a scientist before enrolling in astronaut training. So far, she has stayed on course.

Following her recent graduation, Harrison will spend the summer in Jackson Hole, a valley between Idaho and Wyoming, working at Wyoming Stargazing—a nonprofit aimed at making astronomy accessible to the public. Before applying to schools where she’ll earn a PhD in astrobiology or planetary geophysics, Harrison plans to take the remainder of the year off to travel to China and Russia to practice the languages she believes she will need in about 10 years, when she plans to enroll as an astronaut.

While joining the military was once the traditional way to get into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Harrison said it’s now common to get into the space industry through scientific research on life in outer space, which is what she plans to do. Harrison would also be happy to work as an astronaut for private startups such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

“I am a big fan of private space exploration because [it] makes [space] more accessible to the public,” she said. “The more people you have involved, the…more resources.”

Mother and manager

Harrison is petite, blond and athletic. If it weren’t for the astronaut suit she often wears when speaking publicly, she might come across as a simple girl next door. Yet, she has been profiled in many national and international publications. She often speaks publicly and has already given a TED Talk, inspiring future female scientists around the world.

Despite her Martian ambitions, Harrison comes off as amazingly down to earth. Yet it’s hard to hear Harrison’s story and not wonder how her narrow focus on this long-term goal has affected her life. Harrison said she burned out twice, and has since learned how to prioritize and to ask for help. Nicole now helps Harrison run The Mars Generation and manages her social media accounts. It’s clear that Nicole is Harrison’s anchor and guiding force.

Nicole, who was a school teacher before starting the social media marketing agency she runs in Minneapolis, is humble and authentic when speaking of her daughter’s “immense dream.” Nicole encourages her daughter to pace herself and take the path to the stars “step by step.” She added, “it is OK for her to eventually change her mind. She might work for 20 years and she might never become an astronaut and [she must know that] it wouldn’t be a failure.” 

Harrison first experienced failure at age 16, when she didn’t pass a chemistry class while attending a dual high school-college program. Harrison went to her mom in tears, ready to give up.

“It was such a small thing, but to me it was devastating and it was almost enough to knock me off of that path,” she said. With her mom’s encouragement, Harrison retook the class the following semester and earned an A. “I had to relearn how to learn,” she said.

Parenting an overachiever

Being the parent of such an overachiever has its perks, Nicole noted. In 2013 she and Harrison were invited to see the launch of the Russian rocket Soyouz to the International Space Station. “Going to Russia and see this launch of her mentor Luca Parmitano in 2013 was pretty surreal. Being along with her on this journey is just so powerful,” said Nicole.

Harrison said that working with her mother added a layer of complexity to their relationship, and they had to learn to keep their filial and professional relationships separate. To do so, Harrison calls her mom by name when speaking about her in a professional context.

Like other parents whose children have varied ambitions, Nicole is challenged with ensuring that her 24-year-old daughter, Madeline, who is a social worker, doesn’t feel lesser than her sister. 

“It is hard to be the sibling of an overachiever, as it is hard to be the parent of a true overachiever. We are not wealthy, I am a single mom, she had to work very hard,” said Nicole, 46. “Even just becoming a female scientist in a male-dominated field is a big goal requiring four years of undergrad and the six years of grad school.”

Combating online harassment 

Inevitably, success attracts envy, especially when one has 1 million social media followers. Harrison was harassed online for two years by a man who accused her of faking being an astronaut.

“It was stressful to know that someone wanted to damage me, but I was able to discuss it with people around me and realize that it had nothing to do with me,” Harrison said, adding that she was clearly subject to sexism because the same person was trolling other young women online.

She was advised to be vocal about the harassment and to seek the support of her followers. Harrison advises other media personalities who deal with haters to follow her example. 

“I am fortunate because my content is so positive and wholesome that, for the most part, my followers are positive. And when [harassment] has happened, they stepped up for me,” she said.

Absent a father, Harrison finds an astronaut mentor

Nicole and Harrison’s father divorced when she was 2; he remarried and now has a 12-year-old daughter. “He is in my life but he has never been a reliable figure,” said Harrison. Still, “he is super excited and supportive of my dream.”

Harrison said that European Space Agency’s Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano is the most influential male figure in her life; the two met in an airport when Harrison was 13 years old. After learning about Harrison’s dream to become an astronaut, Parmitano agreed to become her mentor and, three years later, asked her to be his “earth liaison” by blogging about his experience while he was orbiting on the Russian rocket Soyuz. 

Parmitano gave the aspiring astronaut the best advice she’s ever received: follow her passions instead of trying to fit into what she thinks NASA is looking for, because NASA likes people with passions. 

Balancing life and facing fears

To stoke her pursuit of her dream, Harrison tries to live a balanced life by enjoying her many hobbies, which include running, scuba diving and skydiving. She has had a boyfriend for two years, who is still in college and wants to go into genetic research. While getting married and having children is not high on her priority list, Harrision hasn’t ruled out a future with family.

“I learned how important it is to be well-rounded when you have a dream that is so far out. It will take probably 20 years before I will be able to walk on Mars,” she said.

Going to space is a dangerous endeavor, and NASA’s space exploration has been marked and stalled by fatal shuttle launches and crashes. When asked about her fears, Harrison confessed a very mundane phobia of ants and a much deeper fear of dying without making an impact. Judging from her first 22 years on Earth, Harrison won’t have this regret, if any.

Serena Saitto is an award-winning freelance writer based in San Francisco. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in New York where she was a senior reporter, covering technology, M&A, and finance. She was part of the team that won the 2009 Society of American Business Editors and Writers Awards for enterprise reporting on the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. She also shared the Silurians Society’s award for excellence in business reporting for an article on 2009’s Wall Street bonus furor. Before joining Bloomberg, she was a financial reporter for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and in Milan, Italy, often contributing to The Wall Street Journal and CNBC TV. She previously covered International finance for Ap.biscom in Rome, the Italian service of the Associated Press. She earned an M.S. in Political Economy from the London School of Economics, after graduating from La Sapienza University of Rome with a degree in political sciences. In her free time she loves reading, traveling, skiing, sailing, biking, and surfing.