So many people know of my daughter, Abby, or Astronaut Abby. She’s a pretty amazing young woman. At age 18 she has amassed two years of college credit from the University of Minnesota in math and science courses and is now attending the prestigious Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She has also built a worldwide outreach program that is now leading her generation, the Mars Generation, forward to the future.
As she gets ready to leave our home in Minneapolis for college on the east coast, I’m finding myself reflecting a lot about her journey so far. I just wanted to take the time as the summer’s end draws near to tell you Abby’s story, but from her mom’s perspective this time.
When Abby was a toddler, she was a “piece of work.” There was never a moment’s rest with this child, and I should have seen back then the explorer personality that is so prevalent in her now. But I just thought she liked to climb high and cause me mini-heart attacks. Fear was not something that existed for this kid–ever. She’s also loved people from the very beginning. Abby loved to give hugs to EVERYONE and it never failed that these hugs created an amazing camaraderie with people. People were drawn to her. When Abby was young, she went to Groveland Public Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Everyone in this school of 500 kids knew her. EVERYONE! How did I know this? Because I would pick her up after school, and when she would walk up to me, it often happened that some adult would come up to me and tell me that my kid was wonderful to have around. I would ask how they knew her and they would say something like, “I volunteer on Tuesdays, and whenever I see Abby, she runs up and hugs me.” Hugs were her mark.
Somewhere in this joyful, outgoing child, a passion began to develop. She loved space and wanted to be an astronaut. But I honestly thought that being an astronaut was pretty ridiculous and that working in space was stupid — I mean, who works in space? Remember, this is Minnesota, and we are not a big space community. I didn’t tell Abby this, and I encouraged her to be excited about math and science. However, whenever possible I encouraged her to be a scientist or a doctor — “real jobs.” But she would not let this astronaut thing go. I knew nothing about space and didn’t have a clue that NASA did anything important. I was the average American.
One important thing to know is that Abby did not have “space” in her life. She didn’t attend space camps from a young age and while I tried to get her into science and math programs, rarely was space incorporated. Abby loved dance, gymnastics, soccer, art, singing and playing instruments. She was trying new things all the time. But space was not in our community, and she really didn’t get much formal space exposure. Even when we had opportunities to get exposure to space events and places, we didn’t take them! For example, my sister lives in Orlando, and we visited every single year. I never once took her to Kennedy Space Center–I didn’t even know it existed. What a fail mom!!! Abby’s first time at a NASA center was when she attended space camp at age 12 with a nonprofit that works within the Minneapolis Public schools called Reach For the Stars. This organization takes a select group of kids each year to Space Camp. She came back so excited that it was obvious Space was her place.
Before Abby could go out and change the world, she first had to change me from an average American into a space geek. It started when she was about 11 years old, and I challenged her. If she wanted to be an astronaut, she needed to understand how difficult this really was. I told her that she had to go research what it would take to make this a reality and then start immediately. The next day, she came back with her plan. How could I NOT support her at this point? I mean, she even had a written plan, step by step all the way to applying to be a NASA astronaut. She had really thought this out.
As Abby was embraced at age 13 by the space community online (watch her TEDx to learn more about this), I remember telling her that she now had a voice, and because her goal to be a NASA astronaut and hopefully the first astronaut to Mars was dependent on funding for NASA, she could in her own small way help spread the word about the importance of space exploration with kids and adults alike. In 2013 at age 15, after an invite by her mentor Italian Astronaut Luca Parmitano to attend his Soyuz launch to the space station, she decided she should share the experience with kids and adults everywhere and she started a worldwide outreach program. The program continues to this day. Her focus is to excite kids and adults about human space exploration, STEM education and dreaming. Her goal was to get her generation, the Mars Generation, and the general U.S. population on board with supporting human Mars exploration. Gaining public support helps to put the pressure that is needed on Congress to fund NASA and human space exploration. This is her main mission every day, besides working to become a world class scientist and someday a NASA astronaut.
The thing is, whether or not Abby gets to Mars, Abby and I both believe strongly that we as humans in general need to get to Mars. This is why I work so hard to help Abby with her outreach. I have gone from knowing nothing about space to becoming a total space geek. And I love it. Abby was able to change my life entirely, which is what kids often do. In her own passion, she brought me along on her journey, which has become my journey. She knows she can change her mind at any point. What’s important is that Abby follows her own heart and passions, and if it changes she will be supported by our friends, the world and her mom.
And what’s most important to know about Abby is that she is in control. This is her dream. She had to fight for it from the time when she was very young, when no one believed her. She continued to dream and to plan even before I got on board or anyone else did. And if she is going to make it to being a world-class scientist and from there and NASA astronaut, she is going to have to do the hard work–the real work, which is in school and laboratories and on the job.
I may be her biggest supporter, but I don’t push her — the work to become an astronaut is work she needs to do herself. I can encourage her. I can help facilitate her outreach work (which has nothing to do with her becoming an astronaut), but I am not in any way able to help make her an astronaut. Only she can do that.
When she was just a little girl, when I was a mother of little baby Abby, I could never have imagined this was what I was going to get. I still look at Abby at times and think “Really? Is this really what you want to do?” It still mystifies me and is somewhat beyond my own understanding of her wanting to do it — but I support her in doing it, and I’m incredibly proud of her.