NASA astronaut Kayla Barron was one of the first women to serve as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. Now she’s ready to apply her experience under the waves to a flight above the atmosphere on the International Space Station.
Barron is one of four astronauts preparing for launch as soon as Sunday on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft. Instead of going to sea for a months-long patrol, she is trained to live and work for a half-year in orbit, more than 250 miles above Earth.
“There is no better preparation for spaceflight than serving aboard a submarine,” Barron said in a pre-flight interview with Spaceflight Now.
The 34-year-old naval officer was born in Idaho and graduated high school in Richland, Washington. She said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which happened when she was 14, “really cemented by desire to serve.
“It came into focus that the best fit for me was to join the Navy and go to the Naval Academy,” she said.
“I knew that I wanted to study engineering,” she said. “I was hoping I’d be able to run cross country and track, and I knew especially that I wanted to surround myself with people who would really challenge me to develop my character, develop as a leader, and prepare to step into some pretty big leadership roles as a young leader after graduation.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering from the Naval Academy in 2010, and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from Cambridge University in England in 2011, focusing on research to model the fuel cycle for a next-generation nuclear reactor.
The Navy announced in 2010 that it would begin permitting women to serve on submarines, one of the final naval assignments still restricted to only men. The policy change happened just as Barron was about to graduate from the Naval Academy.
“During my senior year, they changed the policy and allowed women to enter the submarine force for the first time,” Barron said. “So I was in the right place at the right time to do the right thing for me, and was able to join the submarine force and serve there before applying to be an astronaut, and ending up where I am today.”
She was assigned to the USS Maine, a ballistic missile submarine. Barron qualified as a submarine warfare officer for three patrols aboard the Maine.
Barron said she didn’t have a lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. Her experience on submarines inspired her to apply to join NASA’s astronaut corps.
“It was actually the parallels between serving aboard a submarine and working in space that inspired me to want to apply (to NASA) in the first place,” she said. “I didn’t grow up imagining myself able to become an astronaut. It was something that I was aware of, but not something I ever really conceived of as a possibility for me until I served aboard a submarine.”
She applied to join NASA’s astronaut corps and was selected as a member of the astronaut class of 2017. Her first spaceflight assignment is as a mission specialist on the Crew-3 mission, SpaceX’s third crew rotation flight to the International Space Station.
Raja Chari, commander of the Crew-3 mission, is a classmate of Barron’s from the 2017 astronaut group. Pilot Tom Marshburn, a veteran of two previous spaceflights, and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer round out the crew.
When she straps in for launch, it will be the first time she has ever experienced blastoff of a large rocket in person.
“It’s kind of a great failure of mine that I haven’t found myself at the Cape or in Russia for a launch yet,” Barron said. “My very first rocket launch will be riding that same rocket to space.”
Barron and her crewmates are scheduled to return to Earth next April. Her next assignment will be to assist in development of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the surface of the moon some time in the 2020s.
NASA announced a cadre of 18 astronauts last year who will be eligible for assignments to future moon missions. Barron is a member of the Artemis cadre.
“Who wouldn’t love to fly to the moon one day?” she said.
NASA’s first Artemis test flight, designed Artemis 1, is scheduled for launch no earlier than February on an unpiloted trip around the moon and back to Earth. The mission will verify NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule are ready to ferry people to the moon, beginning with the Artemis 2 mission scheduled in late 2023.
Artemis 2 will not land astronauts on the moon, but it will carry a crew of four around the far side of the moon, reaching distances from Earth farther than any human has ever traveled.
Barron will help oversee work on the International Space Station to pave the way for moon missions.
“We’re doing a lot of amazing stuff on ISS that will contribute to lunar missions,” she said. “We’re doing some technology demonstrations of environmental control and life support, so really trying to understand how we can reclaim all the water and turn it back into drinking water, how we can generate oxygen.
“We’ve had these systems aboard the space station for 20 years, but what we’re trying to understand is how to improve their reliability and make them easier to maintain, because now, if something breaks, we have these cargo resupply missions coming to the space station every couple of months,” she said. “So we can get new hardware to replace things, but we’re not going to have that luxury, really, on the moon or especially on a trip to Mars.
“And then we’re trying to do a lot of medical research to understand how the space environment affects the human body,” Barron said. “What it takes to stay healthy on the mission to the moon, or eventually a two-to-three year round trip to Mars is a totally different ball game. So there’s a lot of awesome research going on that will inform how we stay healthy on those missions.”
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