May 8, 2013 at 3:06 PM ET
"Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew — and if Facebook and Twitter count for anything, it just might get her to Mars someday.
Abigail Harrison says she's always dreamed of being the first astronaut to set foot on the Red Planet, and she sees her campaign to get involved in space station outreach as one giant leap toward that target.
She has enlisted one of the crew members, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, as her mentor and orbital pen pal. Her Rockethub crowdfunding campaign has passed the $20,000 mark and is shooting for a goal of $35,000 for travel and outreach. As the May 28 date for Parmitano's launch approaches, she's juggling radio interviews, Facebook updates, Twitter thank-you notes, public appearances ... and oh, that's right: high school.
"You can run yourself ragged on a campaign like this," Harrison, a sophomore at South High School in Minneapolis, told NBC News. "Last time I checked, I have seven A's this quarter. It's been harder to keep my grades up. I don't have as much free time to relax."
Somehow, Astronaut Abby manages. It doesn't hurt that her mom is a social-media maven who runs a marketing agency as @SocialNicole. "My mom has been an amazing resource to answer my questions and help me learn things during this campaign that I wouldn't have been able to learn myself," Harrison said. She also has corporate sponsors, graphic designers and public relations types on her side to keep the mission on track. But her key space connection is with Parmitano — and for that, Harrison has her mom and social media to thank.
The teenager has been an avid space fan since she was 6 or so. Two years ago, she and her mother traveled to NASA's Kennedy Space Center to see the final launch of the shuttle Endeavour. @SocialNicole participated in the mission's Tweetup, which gave a select group of Twitter users the opportunity to meet with NASA officials and astronauts, including Parmitano. She had a chat with the Italian, talked up her daughter and said she hoped they'd meet someday.
"Coming back through the airport, my mom and I turn around at security, and Luca was standing right behind us," Abby recalled. That was the beginning of a friendship that resulted in the #SoyuzAdventure outreach project.
"I will mentor you now," Parmitano told her, "and someday I will train you for your mission to Mars."
Harrison will be attending the Soyuz launch at Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as Parmitano's guest, and she plans to send back dispatches about her travels. During Parmitano's six-month mission on the space station, Astronaut Abby will be checking in on a daily basis as the astronaut's "Earth Liaison." She'll pass along what she finds out via email blasts, blog items, Facebook updates, Twitter tweets and maybe even the occasional Google+ Hangout.
The contributions she's received so far will pay for the trip to Baikonur, and she'll scale her education and outreach efforts to fit her funding.
This may not sound like the traditional path toward an astronaut career, but maybe it's the wave of the future. "It's definitely been a learning process to step away from the idea that being an astronaut is more than just math and science," Harrison said. She still has a passion for science — particularly for biology and geology. And she still has a passion to be among the first to walk on Mars. "I have a saying, 'Mars or Bust, 2030,'" she said. But she also has a passion for social interaction, and she has learned from Parmitano to work that into her career plans as well.
"Do what you love, not what you think NASA is looking for," she quoted her mentor as saying, "because NASA is looking for people who are passionate about what they do."
In 2030, Astronaut Abby will be 32 years old — which is how old Sally Ride was when she became America's first woman in space. That sounds just about right.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.