This Teenager Hosts Earth-To-Space Q&As With An Orbiting Astronaut

Meet Abigail Harrison. This teenager’s enthusiasm about space so impressed Luca Parmitano — who just happens to be a European Space Agency astronaut on the space station right now — that the two have a social media collaboration going.

Abby collects questions from readers of her blog (AstronautAbby.com) and sends them up to the station for Parmitano to read and respond to.

Parmitano’s first mission in space, which he calls Volare (“Fly”), has been a busy one. He’s driven a rover, practiced grappling techniques for the Cygnus spacecraft — which was delayed in its docking to Tuesday (now Saturday) — and experienced two spacewalks (one went to plan, and the other was cut short due to a spacesuit leak).

Meanwhile, Abby had a space-y summer of her own. She fundraised thousands of dollars to see Parmitano’s launch in May. Then she went to Space Camp and toured several NASA and international agency centers. We caught up with Abby to find out how things are going — and if this brings her any closer to her dream of going to space herself. Below is a slightly edited e-mail conversation about her adventures.

Universe Today: How’s it going with the partnership?

Abigail Harrison: Working with Luca has been a lot of fun! I have really enjoyed being able to e-mail with him on station and especially the opportunity I had to talk to him while visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL at the end of July. The AstronautAbby community has been very active sharing images of the Space Station flying by for my #CatchLuca weekly blog post, and the #AskLuca questions submitted by my community have been great. It’s fun to hear how Luca answers these questions each week.

UT: What are the best things that you have been doing specifically to spread the message of Volare?

AH: I think my #CatchLuca blog series has been a real hit! So many people from around the world have taken photos of the ISS passing overhead and decided to submit them and share with the world. It’s been great! I think this helps to spread the message as it is people on Earth getting excited about the space station and sharing their own pictures. The more sharing that happens, the more aware people get about the mission and the more they learn.

Luca Parmitano, a European Space Agency astronaut, is on his first voyage to space as a part of Expeditions 36/37. Credit: NASA
Luca Parmitano, a European Space Agency astronaut, is on his first voyage to space as a part of Expeditions 36/37. Credit: NASA

The #AskLuca series has also been very successful. It’s true, anyone can jump on social media and ask a question of Luca or any astronaut and they most likely will answer it, but this series has allowed people who may not be socially savvy to ask questions, as well as people to ask longer questions. The fact that all the answers are published on my blog is also great as people can read it in a published article versus on a social media update.

UT: Tell us more about these NASA tours you’ve been doing lately. What is your goal in doing them?

AH: I have been fortunate to be in the right places at the right time. This summer I was in Houston for a gymnastics camp, and therefore I was able to tour the Johnson Space Center – but not just tour the center, I got to see the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and compare it to the Russian counterpart that I saw in May during my visit to Star City [astronaut training complex in Russia] when attending Luca’s launch. I also was able to go on the floor of Mission Control and see a specialized robotics lab, along with a lot of other cool things.

Abigail Harrison simulates repairing a satellite during Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. Credit: Abigail Harrison
Abigail Harrison simulates repairing a satellite during Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. Credit: Abigail Harrison

 

After Houston, I headed to Huntsville for Space Camp. While in Huntsville I was able to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center and specifically see some of the work NASA is doing along with ATK to build the Space Launch System, which is the rocket system that will take me to Mars someday (similar but much bigger than the Saturn V rockets that took Apollo to the moon).

Finally,  I visited Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Colorado to see the production of the Orion, which is the spacecraft currently being developed to go to Mars, the moon and asteroids. These visits have tremendous value as I have been able to share pictures, write about the visits and talk about what I have seen with people everywhere.

The goal is to learn about what is being done right now to realize the future American missions to Mars, the moon and asteroids and continue human space flight. The more I learn and understand about our current efforts to realize the future of human space exploration, the easier it is for me to talk about the future and educate the general public. Part of my mission is to help spread the word to people around the world about the future of human space flight and get the public excited for what we will do next.

Abigail Harrison with subscale test rocket motors during a visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Credit: Abigail Harrison
Abigail Harrison with subscale test rocket motors during a visit to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Credit: Abigail Harrison

UT: I’m sure you’ve been talking to Luca regularly. What do you talk about?

AH: We e-mail and tweet quite a bit. We have only talked once. To be honest, I follow his mission very closely through his online updates and ESA and NASA updates for my role as his Earth Liaison, and therefore I am up to date on what he is doing, probably more up to date than most people.

When we e-mail and talk it is usually about other things like advice on school, travel (he lives in Houston so gave me some good tips on what to see while visiting), and generally asking him how he is doing and what it is like to live and work on the ISS. It’s not that different from when he was training for his mission on Earth, except for now he is flying in space overhead and his e-mails and tweets come from space. 🙂

UT: Do you feel any closer to being in space as a result of this partnership?

AH: Yes, I do. How could I not? I would guess that anyone who personally knows an astronaut living on the ISS would feel closer to being in space. The personal connection means you are paying close attention to everything the astronaut is doing, and following the mission very closely.

The fact that I am sharing so much of what Luca is doing as part of my role as his Earth Liaison also helps me feel closer to being in space, because I am sharing with so many people and they in turn offer me support everyday towards my goals. I watch Luca and can imagine the day when it’s my turn to go into space. It’s been an incredible experience to get to be part of his mission.

Why An Astronaut Asked 15 Year Old Abby to Help Get The Word Out

It seems an unlikely scenario: a teenager from Minnesota helping Italy’s next astronaut talk to the public about spaceflight. But for Luca Parmitano, who has mentored Abigail “Abby” Harrison for two years, it’s a way to reach out to a young audience. For Abby, it brings her closer to her dream of becoming an astronaut herself.

Parmitano does have the official outreach team available through the Italian Space Agency (which is part of the European Space Agency) and NASA, he acknowledged. Official mission reports will proceed as usual through those agencies’ press releases and social media accounts.

He’s pursuing this partnership with Abby, however, to have an additional “channel” targeted directly at children and teenagers, Parmitano told Universe Today:

It’s very simple. I thought one of the most important things that I can do in my job is talking to young people, youngsters, and try to inspire them try to guide them towards choosing a career path that goes towards science, technology, exploration of all sorts.

My message is to try to find something that you like, and to pursue it, and don’t wait for things to happe, but make it happen yourself. At one point, talking to Abby — this fantastic young girl who is so enthusiastic — I thought maybe she would be much better at communicating with kids than I could. I’m 36 years old. Maybe I don’t realize it, but I may be disconnected from the age group.

Parmitano is no social media pushover himself, though. The first-time flyer has a “landing page” website at LucaParmitano.com giving one-stop shopping for his Twitter, Facebook and Google pages. And just last week, he did a Google+ hangout with his protégé. (You can watch the whole thing below.)

Abby, at the tender age of 15, has amassed qualifications of her own. The Minnesota teenager is a Space Camp alumnus. She’s planning to learn Russian — an important language for the space program — and is already taking lessons in Mandarin. Her Twitter account has about 6,500 followers. And she’s raising money on Rockethub to see Parmitano’s launch in Kazakhstan next month and do outreach afterwards. With 19 days left, Abby’s approaching half of her $35,000 goal.

The aspiring Mars astronaut has a huge list of activities planned during Parmitano’s mission. She’ll share daily updates from the astronaut on her blog (AstronautAbby.com) and various social media profiles. She proposes an “Ask Luca” series where readers will be able to send questions to the Italian astronaut.

There also will be articles to write, Skype classroom chats to do, and a conference tour — including the International Mars Society Convention in August. Besides the social media updates, Abby is in the midst of booking appearances at conferences and scheduling chats with classrooms. There are more than 20 schools who have signed up for her to be a speaker, either in-person or by Skype.

“That is great, because I won’t be able to be there,” Parmitano said with a laugh.

It was two chance connections that brought him together with Abby. In 2011, Abby and her mother flew to Florida to see the penultimate launch of the space shuttle, mission STS-134. Abby’s mother, Nicole, briefly talked to Parmitano at a tweetup. Then Abby herself met Parmitano at the airport while waiting for the flight home.

Abigail Harrison, who calls herself "Astronaut Abby", will give updates from Luca Parmitano's mission. Credit: Abigail Harrison/Nicole Harrison
Abigail Harrison, who calls herself “Astronaut Abby”, will give updates from Luca Parmitano’s mission. Credit: Abigail Harrison/Nicole Harrison

The teenager and astronaut, who both had space dreams from young childhood, made a professional connection. Parmitano agreed to be Abby’s mentor. The two kept in touch in the years following, then Abby proposed her outreach program to compliment ESA’s activities.

“The main difference [over ESA’s outreach] is when it’s my program, it’s kid to kid. I’m trying to show that by working hard, you can do great things, and I’m an example of that,” Harrison said. “As an aspiring astronaut, you can meet amazing people and have amazing experiences.”

As a rookie, Parmitano said he is looking forward to the experiences his first spaceflight will bring, no matter who is watching. He joked that Italy does not really pay attention to him as an astronaut — the media flock to Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, who is expected to reach station on Expedition 42/43.

“From Day 1, since we were selected, every news magazine went crazy for the female astronaut — and by the way, there’s another guy. I started introducing myself as ‘the other guy.’ ”

But the mission is still a notable one for Italy. Parmitano is the first assigned to a flight from the European Space Agency’s latest class of six astronauts, who call themselves The Shenanigans. The Italian Space Agency got this chance due to a substantial hardware contribution to the station program: a modified multipurpose logistics module (Leonardo) that was adapted for use as a laboratory on station. It and two other MPLMs (Raffaello and Donatello) ferried cargo on shuttle flights to use on station, too.

Parmitano will perform the first Italian spacewalk — two of them are planned, in fact. He and crewmate Chris Cassidy (a former Navy SEAL who spoke with Universe Today last month) are scheduled to go outside in July to swap out experiments, put up a blanket to shield part of the station from space exposure, and install new orbital replacement units to upgrade certain ISS functions.

Expedition 35/36 astronaut Luca Parmitano will perform two spacewalks during his mission. Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
Expedition 36/37 astronaut Luca Parmitano will perform two spacewalks during his mission. Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett

In between, of course, Parmitano has dozens of experiments to work through — contributions from various station partners ranging from Japan to Canada.

An Italian one he speaks of frequently involves him deliberately setting controlled fires on station. Called ICE-GA (Italian Combustion Experiment for Green Air), it’s intended to seek renewable fuels that are less polluting than what we use today. Results will be used for future space fuels, and also on the ground to reduce toxic emissions.

Despite his high-flying duties, Parmitano plays down any adulation from Abby.

“She’s a tremendous young lady, and she has enthusiasm to sell, and maturity way beyond her age,” he said. “It’s really an honor for me to be called her mentor. I learn from her more than she learned from me.”

As for how Abby plans to get to Mars, first she is figuring out what interests her to narrow down her university choices.

Abby, who is entering her junior year in high school next year, is conscious that time away from school is hard to do when starting to think about university applications. She’s working out alternative scheduling arrangements with her teachers and keeping them apprised of what could be a busy speaking schedule in the coming months.

She’s still mulling her options for university — perhaps the United States Air Force Academy, or maybe studying geology at the University of Colorado. Along the way, she’ll keep in contact with Parmitano.

“How important it is to work hard was really the main subject of our discussion [at the airport],” Abby said, “and how if you have a dream and you set a goal, you can achieve it with hard work.”