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Shooting for the Stars

Fourteen-year-old Taylor Richardson dreams of becoming one of the first people to set foot on Mars

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: Why are the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math important in the modern world?

Taylor Richardson may be only in eighth grade, but she already has a long-term mission: She wants to be one of the first people to visit Mars. NASA plans to send astronauts to the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. That means it could be the kids of today who will be making the historic trip in the future.

Getting space explorers safely to Mars will be no easy feat. Becoming an astronaut takes years of education and training (see The Right Stuff?). But that hasn’t deterred Taylor. The 14-year-old, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, has had her sights set on space since she was 5.

Taylor Richardson is only in eighth grade, but she already has a long-term mission. She wants to be one of the first people to visit Mars.

NASA plans to send astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s. That’s exciting news for today’s kids. They could be the ones making the big trip in the future.

Getting space explorers safely to Mars won’t be easy. Becoming an astronaut takes years of education and training (see The Right Stuff?). But that hasn’t stopped Taylor, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida. She’s now 14 years old. She’s dreamed about going to space since she was 5.

“I read the autobiography by my idol Mae Jemison—the first African-American woman in space,” says Taylor. “She looked just like me! I felt so inspired by what she had achieved.” Jemison wrote about how studying science, technology, engineering, and math helped her overcome many of the odds she faced. Together, these fields are known as STEM.

Taylor saw herself in Jemison’s story and has been following in her hero’s footsteps ever since. She, too, has discovered a passion for all things STEM. Taylor is active in her community, sharing her love of space and science with others—particularly young women of color like herself. She hopes to motivate them to also shoot for the stars.

“I read the autobiography by my idol Mae Jemison—the first African-American woman in space,” says Taylor. “She looked just like me! I felt so inspired by what she had achieved.” Jemison wrote about how she overcame many challenges. Her study of science, technology, engineering, and math helped her. Together, these fields are known as STEM.

Taylor saw herself in Jemison’s story. She has followed in her hero’s footsteps ever since. Taylor also loves all things STEM. In her community, she shares her love of space and science with others. She tries to inspire young women of color like herself. She hopes they’ll also shoot for the stars.

EMPOWERED BY STEM

Taylor may be young, but she’s already faced her own share of obstacles. She has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The condition sometimes makes it difficult for her to concentrate. But she refuses to let that hold her back. She decided ADHD would instead stand for “Abundantly Different and Happily Divine.” Taylor also had a tough time with bullying when she was little. “Older kids at school teased me for liking science—they called me a nerd and a geek, and I was discriminated against for being African-American,” she says.

The more Taylor explored STEM, though, the more confident she became. When she was 9, she decided to attend Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. There, kids train like real astronauts using simulators—training machines that imitate conditions in space. One, for example, gives the sensation of moving around in low gravity—like that found on the moon. Camp attendees also participate in missions aboard mock spacecraft, including one that resembles the International Space Station (ISS).

Taylor may be young, but she’s already faced her own challenges. She has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The condition can make it hard for her to concentrate. But she won’t let that hold her back. She came up with her own name for ADHD. She decided the letters would stand for “Abundantly Different and Happily Divine.” Taylor also had a tough time with bullies when she was little. “Older kids at school teased me for liking science,” she says. “They called me a nerd and a geek, and I was discriminated against for being African-American.”

Taylor kept studying STEM, and she became more confident. She went to Space Camp when she was 9. It was held at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. There, kids train like real astronauts using simulators. These training machines imitate what space is like. For example, one gives the feeling of moving around in low gravity. It shows what it would feel like to be on the moon. At camp, kids also take part in missions on mock spacecraft. One looks like the International Space Station (ISS).

“All of these exercises teach students that astronauts can’t be successful without working as a team,” says Pat Ammons, a Space Camp spokesperson.

The program also focuses on future missions to Mars (see Living on Mars). One of Taylor’s camp projects was to design a model of a Martian colony based on what astronauts might need while living on the Red Planet. It could take astronauts up to nine months to reach Mars. They’ll need enough food, water, and air to survive the trip. Once astronauts land, they’ll need to survive the planet’s inhospitable environment. Mars has little water and no breathable air.

Pat Ammons is a Space Camp spokesperson. “All of these exercises teach students that astronauts can’t be successful without working as a team,” she says.

The program also focuses on future missions to Mars (see Living on Mars). One of Taylor’s camp projects was to make a model of a Martian colony. She had to think about what astronauts might need while living on the Red Planet. Astronauts could take up to nine months to reach Mars. They’ll need enough food, water, and air for the trip. After they land, they’ll face the planet’s harsh environment. Mars has little water, and humans can’t breathe the air.

GIVING BACK

Taylor loved Space Camp, but it bothered her that she was the only African-American girl in her class. She wanted to help other girls of color discover a love of STEM. When she returned home, she held a book drive to collect STEM-themed books for schools with students from low-income families. The idea grew into a program called “Take Flight with a Book,” which has already distributed more than 5,000 books.

People began to take notice of Taylor’s enthusiasm and commitment to helping others. In 2016, she received an invitation from the White House to attend the United State of Women Summit. The event celebrated the achievements of women and girls. Later that year, she was invited back to the White House for an early screening of the movie Hidden Figures. It tells the story of a group of female African-American mathematicians whose calculations helped send the first U.S. astronauts to space. (Read more about Hidden Figures in the 1/16/17 issue of Science World.)

Taylor loved Space Camp, but she was the only African-American girl in her class. That bothered her. She wanted other girls of color to love STEM. So she looked for ways to help. Back home, she held a book drive to collect books about STEM. She gave them to schools with students from low-income families. The idea grew into a program called “Take Flight with a Book.” It’s already given out more than 5,000 books.

Taylor was excited about helping others, and she worked hard at it. People began to notice. In 2016, she got an invitation from the White House for the United State of Women Summit. The event celebrated the successes of women and girls. Later that year, she was invited back to the White House. This time, she saw an early screening of the movie Hidden Figures. It tells the story of a group of female African-American mathematicians. Their work helped send the first U.S. astronauts to space. (Read more about Hidden Figures in the 1/16/17 issue of Science World.)

Inspired by the movie, Taylor started an online campaign (through the website GoFundMe.com) that sent more than 1,000 girls in the local Jacksonville area to see the movie. Her efforts went viral and sparked similar campaigns in more than 72 cities around the country, raising more than $120,000! With money left over from her campaign, Taylor set up a scholarship to send another girl from a low-income family to Space Camp this past summer.

The movie inspired Taylor to start an online campaign. She raised enough money to send more than 1,000 girls in the local Jacksonville area to see the movie. Her efforts went viral. People started campaigns like Taylor’s in more than 72 cities around the country. They raised more than $120,000. Taylor had money left over from her campaign, so she set up a scholarship. It sent another girl from a low-income family to Space Camp this past summer.

A FUTURE IN SPACE?

Taylor plans to continue her charitable efforts while learning everything she can about space. In college, she wants to major in a STEM field, like physics or engineering—a requirement to apply for NASA’s astronaut program. And since it’s important for astronauts to be physically fit, Taylor competes on her school’s track team. She’s also currently studying Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Learning different languages is an important skill for astronauts too. That’s because they need to communicate with astronauts from all over the world while working aboard the ISS.

Taylor plans to keep helping others. She also plans to learn everything she can about space. In college, she wants to major in a STEM field, like physics or engineering. That’s required to apply for NASA’s astronaut program. Astronauts need to be physically fit, so Taylor competes on her school’s track team. She’s also studying Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Learning different languages is another important skill for astronauts. It will help when they work aboard the ISS. There, they’ll need to communicate with astronauts from all over the world.

Even with all her studying and experiences, Taylor says it will be a long shot for her to make it to space. Only 107 people have ever visited the ISS, and just 12 have gone as far as the moon. But Taylor’s astronaut idols continue to inspire her to achieve her goals—no matter how lofty.

Last May, Taylor’s mom heard that Mae Jemison would be speaking at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia. She contacted Jemison and set up a surprise meeting so Taylor could finally come face-to-face with her hero. “When I met her, she told me to always dream big, follow my dreams, and bring more women to the STEM table,” says Taylor.

Her studies and hard work will help. But Taylor says it will still be a long shot for her to get to space. Only 107 people have visited the ISS, and just 12 have reached the moon. Taylor has set very high goals, but her astronaut heroes keep inspiring her to reach them.

Mae Jemison was going to speak at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia last May. Taylor’s mom heard about it. She got in touch with Jemison and set up a surprise meeting. Taylor finally came face-to-face with her hero. “When I met her, she told me to always dream big, follow my dreams, and bring more women to the STEM table,” says Taylor.

CORE QUESTION: What goals do you have? How might you start preparing now for your career in adulthood?

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