Meet the teens behind the award-winning documentary ‘Astronaut Starbright’

STUDENTS Taylor Richardson and Lana Taylor joined forces to create a film on the importance of inclusion and representation in STEM.  

Meet 15-year-olds Taylor Richardson and Lana Taylor.

Taylor is a vocal advocate for diversity in STEM and an aspiring astronaut (nicknamed Astronaut Starbright). She helps girls from diverse backgrounds see themselves in STEM fields through book drives and by sending them to movies like “Hidden Figures” and “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Lana is an award-winning filmmaker and playwright. Her play, “Spoiled Milk and Burnt Cookies,” completed its successful run in Jacksonville, Florida last year.

The talented teens joined forces to create the documentary, “Astronaut Starbright: The story of a young STEM advocate,” which follows Taylor on her journey for increased inclusion and representation in STEM.

Lana and Taylor at the All American High School Film Festival 2018. (Courtesy of Shane Drummond)

Lana and Taylor at the All American High School Film Festival 2018. (Courtesy of Shane Drummond)

The film is captivating audiences around the U.S. with screenings at the Austin Film Festival and Los Angeles International Film Festival. Lana recently received the Female Rising Award at the All American High School Film Festival for her work on the documentary.

Among the many things that bind these two young leaders together, the strongest is their devotion to showing the world that anyone is capable of achieving their ambitions regardless of age, income, gender or race.

I talked to Lana and Taylor about making “Astronaut Starbright,” their goals for the future and what they hope young women learn from watching the film.

Bianca He (BH): Taylor, tell us about what inspired your love for STEM. I know you attended your first space camp at the age of 9 — what part of that experience did you enjoy the most? How did it make you feel to be the African American student in your group?

Taylor Richardson (TR): My inspiration and love for STEM came just from looking up at the stars and wondering what was beyond them. Wondering if one day I would be among stars. Of course, reading Dr. Mae Jemison’s “Find Where The Wind Goes,” increased my passion, which led me to create a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to send myself to Space Camp.

I attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama at the age of 9. The experience I enjoyed the most was building a Mars habitat with my team Honeywell. At the time though, I had mixed emotions being the only African American female in my group. When I arrived for the Space Camp portion, because there are other camps like Aviation and Robotics, I immediately noticed there wasn’t anyone who looked like me. And while I was very excited to be there, being the only one really bothered me and I didn’t understand why. Was it because at the time no one was as interested in space as I or was it that people who looked like me were not afforded the opportunity to be what they couldn’t see? Either way, I knew then that I would do my part to ensure more girls, especially girls of color in my city, knew about the camp and ways to attend it. Little did I know it lead to book drives, movie screenings, fundraising, speaking at big events and inspiring a whole new generation of girls to dream STEM big. But I love it!

I immediately noticed there wasn’t anyone who looked like me... Was it because at the time no one was as interested in space as I or was it that people who looked like me was not afforded the opportunity to be what they couldn’t see?
— Taylor Richardson

BH: Tell us about your book drives, “Taylor's Take Flight with a Book,” in Jacksonville, Florida. Why do you think books are so important for kids’ development?

TR: When I was younger, I was not a strong reader. My mom being a single low-income mom could not afford tutors or to buy me books, but she would take me to the library and we would stay in there for hours. She would read to me or she would check out books or audiobooks to help me become a better reader.

To me, literacy is like health care, you need it to survive. If you cannot read, it will affect your livelihood in every facet. My goal with the book drives is to ensure kids have home libraries so that the books can help them take flight towards their own dreams and aspirations in life. Whether that’s being an astronaut or chef or teacher or even the President of U.S., books can take you to places beyond what is out your front door and lead you to discover life outside your norm. It’s amazing.

BH: Lana, when did your love of filmmaking begin? What drew you to film as an art form?

Lana Taylor (LT): I began to like film around age 6 or 7. I would always come up with story ideas or a scene in a possible film, and I would picture it/build it in my mind. I’d have a hard time paying attention in grade school because of this. My teachers would refer to this as “LanaLand.”

BH: Tell us about the process of creating “Astronaut Starbright.” Why did you choose Taylor as the subject of the film?

LT: I chose Taylor because she seemed like a really good subject to do a documentary on. I support what she does and what she has to say about representation — and I feel like more need to know about her. Representation is an important thing, so I support her pushing to be a representation figure for girls of color in STEM.

BH: Taylor, why are you passionate about bringing diversity and gender equality to the STEM field?

TR: For the same reason attending Space Camp and not seeing people who look like me began my passion to advocate for diversity but also inclusion and gender equality in STEM fields. It just is not right. Everyone — no matter gender, race or socioeconomic background — deserves to be whatever they want to be and most importantly, deserves to have access and resources to ensure their dreams are turned into goals which are turned into accomplishments of success.  

BH: What changes would you like to see in STEM field to make it more inclusive?

TR: I would like to see more communities, leaders, government and organizations STEM and non-STEM be more intentional with providing opportunities to those who they do not see at the table. It’s quite simple: if you are the only person as far as race or gender at the table, then that’s a problem and it needs to be fixed immediately. I feel STEM resources should start as young as possible especially for girls to know that they too can be and do anything boys can do. Oprah said it best, “The New Generation of BOYS should BE RAISED TO BELIEVE THAT GIRLS are their EQUALS, and sometimes, THEIR SUPERIORS!”

BH: Lana, what part of creating this film did you enjoy the most? What part was the most challenging? How did you overcome that challenge?

LT: I enjoyed production the most. As the cinematographer, I got to make a lot of choices with how I wanted the film to be shot. I loved to do that and experiment with it. Post-production, however, was definitely the most challenging process for this project. I’m not the best when it comes to editing, mainly because I take a while to do it. As a perfectionist, I would constantly go over and over a particular section, trying to get it perfect...which would of course, slow me down.  

I would like to see more communities, leaders, government and organizations STEM and non-STEM be more intentional with providing opportunities to those who they do not see at the table.

BH: Taylor, what was it like shooting “Astronaut Starbright?”

TR: It was very fun. Most people don’t know that process for me was like over three or four months and for Lana even longer. She is the true MVP! I had to get use to someone following me around like that all the time and then having to repeat stuff, but it was a great experience. It actually grew my love even more for ARTS from a cinematic perspective and how again STEM can interconnect with anything. Hence, STEAM! I am amazed that it has already won several awards. The fact that it has been screened at the All American High School Film Festival, the largest high school festival, and the Austin Film Festival is truly a dream come true. I think the biggest kudos thus far was when HBO and CinemaEd sponsored for me and Lana to attend the Austin Film Festival and speak on its panel about diversity and inclusion in film. I am truly honored and humbled at the response it’s getting from around the world.  

BH: Lana, how did it feel to win the Female Rising Award at All American High School Festival?

LT: It felt great! It was my first film festival experience so I didn’t expect to win anything. But to win an award was just so cool for me and it inspires me to keep working hard.

Behind the scenes of “Astronaut Starbright” with Lana and Taylor. (Courtesy of Tamara Taylor)

Behind the scenes of “Astronaut Starbright” with Lana and Taylor. (Courtesy of Tamara Taylor)

BH: What upcoming projects are you both working on that you’re excited about?

LT: I’m constantly working on films. I have a narrative coming soon called “Reputation.” It’s about a young boy known for being the best basketball player at grade school who loses to the new girl and feels his life is over.

TR: One! That’s hard. I will continue to donate books and fundraise to inspire, engage and empower our youth to DREAM STEAM BIG, which are very important to me. I want to work on some type of STEM or Girl Empowered apparel or shoe, maybe a book. So Nike and Macmillan, I am here! Let’s collab! LOL!  

I love that I am already a part of a diverse group of girls who uplift and support each other and of course spread our joy and love of all things STEAM. We are called The STEAM Squad. Definitely check us out on Twitter.

Right now the biggest event I am really excited about is coming in February where I will be an Innovation speaker at IBM Think2019! I am truly honored that IBM is giving me this huge platform to share my STEM story and why inclusion and representation in STEM matters for girls like me.    

BH: What would you both like to accomplish over the next five years?

LT: I hope to have a large collection of films I’m proud of and to be the best filmmaker I can be at the time, who works hard and accomplishes goals.

TR: In five years, I would just be starting college. Not sure which college yet but my choices are Spelman, Howard, MIT, Harvard or Caltech. I hope that more girls who have heard my story or seen my advocacy efforts, start paying it forward in their own ways to ensure the door for STEM is and remains open. And that not only we are seated at the table that we are leading it! I do hope to see more girls who look like me coding, into robotics and yes, majoring in STEM focus careers!

BH: How would you describe each other?

LT: Taylor is very busy. Busy bee. She can summarize things quickly, which is great. She doesn’t ramble. She’s also nice and she encourages people like me to pursue their dreams.

TR: Lana is a very talented filmmaker who I know will go very far in the cinematic arts world. She is smart and knows what she wants. She is definitely a go-getter and the film world better get used to her because she’s not going anywhere!  

BH: What do you hope students who watch “Astronaut Starbright” will learn?

LT: I hope they learn about Taylor and learn about representation and its importance.

TR: I hope students who watch the film learn that no matter your age, your race, your gender, your socioeconomic status that you can fly high, that you and your dreams matter, you are not your circumstances or flaws and that your mark on this world is powerful, unstoppable and limitless. I also hope students know that flaws turn into superpowers waiting to be unleashed. My superpower of ADHD, which I call Abundantly Different Happily Divine, is what I live every day and I am so proud of it! Know that these tests we have in life can be your testimonies. And lastly, to always be kind to others, have a listening ear, give back and pay it forward to others because your legacy is not what you leave behind, but impact on who met along the way. It’s up to you to make that your legacy positive and great! Ad astra!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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Bianca He is an editorial intern at Malala Fund. In her free time, she reads, hikes and craves for bubble tea.