The Next Generation

Lieutenant Kayla Barron ’10, USN, continues the Naval Academy’s amazing astronaut tradition

I think I’ve always had an adventurous and pioneering spirit, thinking about going into space and pushing the boundaries of what we’ve done before is really exciting, it makes me feel like a kid again,” said Lieutenant Kayla Barron ’10, USN, the latest in the U.S. Naval Academy’s remarkable number of members of the astronaut community.

Technically, Barron is an astronaut candidate, and she’ll remain one for two years until she completes her astronaut training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. If she’s successful, she’ll become the Academy’s 54th alumni astronaut. Her resume to date certainly bodes well for her: a systems engineering major and varsity track and cross country runner, Barron was a Trident Scholar at the Academy, earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, and became one of the first class of women commissioned into the submarine community. She got the call announcing her selection for the next astronaut class while immersed in one of the duties of her last tour: coordinating the review of the Color Parade with the official party during Commissioning Week 2017 as flag aide to Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Ted Carter ’81, USN.

“Mrs. Carter and Admiral Carter were right there to celebrate with me after I got the call,” said Barron. “It was just a really special moment after the 18-month selection process.”

Barron’s duties as Admiral Carter’s flag aide played an unexpected role in her path to the astronaut office. “There were a couple of instances early in my tour when I was exposed to the astronaut office,” said Barron. “I met Admiral Carter’s classmate, Captain Kathryn Hire ’81, USN, who was teaching in the aero department, and talking to her was the first time I realized that there are a lot of parallels between working on a submarine and working in space. I had been mulling it over but hadn’t made any big decisions, but as the Supe and I were pulling up to this big event at the Air and Space Museum a few weeks later, I mentioned that I had been thinking about the astronaut program. He was the first person I ever said it out loud to. Being the aviator he is, he knows a lot of people who went on to be in the astronaut community, including a couple of Navy grads he introduced me to.

They were really encouraging, so on the way home, I was excited, but also kind of nervous. I knew I was interested, but I knew there was a lot to learn, and I was almost afraid to fail, afraid to put myself out there doing something that’s pretty unconventional for a submarine warfare officer, feeling pretty young and inexperienced. The Admiral kind of sensed that a little bit, looked at me and said…

‘Kayla, do you know how you become an astronaut?’

‘No sir, not really.’

‘You apply.’

She did, along with more than 18,000 others—more than three times as many as NASA’s last call for astronauts in 2012. From there, the group winnowed to 400 to 600 highly qualified applicants, then to 120 who were called in for interviews.

After reporting to the Johnson Space Center in Houston in August to begin training, Barron has begun a preparation process that includes aviation training, Russian language skills, operating robotic systems, understanding the operations of the International Space Station and learning how to do spacewalks.

“There’s a lot to learn, but I’m excited about it,” said Barron. “I’ve always loved learning new things and pushing myself.”

Barron’s years as a midshipman and service on submarines helped lay the foundation for the challenges she’ll face in the space program.

“At the Academy, I learned how to be a member of lots of different kinds of teams, which translated into my experience in the submarine warfare community, where I was a part of teams doing things that were super consequential,” said Barron. “The Naval Academy may have felt stressful, but we had a safety net to catch us if we fell or failed. In the submarine fleet, you’re out there doing real missions with real equipment and real people. Our lives are on the line, and we have to work together to operate in this really complex environment. Looking forward to a potential future mission in space, that’s a pretty similar environment. You’re operating in an environment where humans don’t normally live.

You have whatever you have with you. You can’t ask for help. You can’t ask for more equipment or for people with different expertise. You have the raw materials available to you, and that’s what you need to use in order to succeed.”

Given the comprehensive nature of astronaut training, it’ll be at least five years, more likely 10, before Barron will be space-bound. “We may be able to call ourselves astronauts after two years, but you’re not a full-fledged astronaut until you actually go up and do a mission in space. We’ll eventually get assigned to jobs that support our teammates who are up in space until we end up assigned to a mission ourselves, and start working and training to that specific mission set,” said Barron. “There’s a lot in front of me before I’m training for a mission. Right now, I’m really focused on ‘How can I learn everything they’re trying to teach me,’ and ‘How can I find ways to contribute and be a member of the team that’s actually adding value, even though I don’t know a ton about the program yet?’”

Barron’s class could include the first astronauts to travel to Mars, and will also likely participate in the build out of the commercial crew program partnerships with Boeing and SpaceX, which are building rockets that can carry astronauts to space from American soil.

“It’s a really exciting time to look toward a set of missions that the only real historical parallel to is the Apollo era that really ignited the nation and got everyone engaged in what NASA was doing and what America was doing to push the boundaries of what we’ve done before,” said Barron. “It’s an honor to have the chance to go and be a part of what NASA’s doing now and will likely be doing for the next 15 to 20 years. I feel super lucky to be in a position to contribute in any way I can.”

Source: September-October 2017 Shipmate

 

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