Submariner-turned-astronaut Kayla Barron is already going where few women have gone. Is the moon next? (2024)

Josh Farley|Kitsap Sun

From navigatingcramped passageways onsubmarines to floating through modules aboard the International Space Station, Kayla Barron has become an expert atworking in places humans weren't naturally designed to go.

The Navy officer, one month into her half-year aboard the space station, once ran nuclear reactors on the nation's ballistic missile-armed subs hidden deep under oceans. Now, she's 250 miles or soabove Earth, weightlessand venturing out into spaceto repair adamaged antenna.

"It's pretty intense to look down on the world," Barron saidin an interview over Skype on Monday. "Sometimes you get the sensation that you're just hanging off the edge of the cliff, at the highest height you've ever been at."

Among the first women to serve on a Navy submarine, the 34-year-old Barron is among the candidates who could alsobreak a celestial glass ceiling: The Washington state native couldfly and land on the moon as part of NASA's Artemis program. And those missions will inform the agency's ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars.

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"We're ready to explore again," Barron said of NASA's vision toreturn humans toEarth'ssatellite for the first time in a half-century. "We could notbe more pumped."

Her success in space comes as no surprise to her former colleagues in the undersea world. Navy Capt. Dale Klein, her commanding officer aboard the USS Mainefrom 2013 to 2015, described her as a brilliant young lieutenant with an insatiable drive whowas always looking to help her fellow sailors.

"I don't know if space is enough for her," Klein said. "She may get to Mars and say, 'OK, what's next?'"

Kayla Barron rides 'asubmarine in space'

The Navy lieutenant commander, selected in 2017 to be an astronaut from NASA's largest applicant pool ever of more than 18,300, grew up in the Tri-Cities of eastern Washington. She hadn't planned to serve aboard a submarine or a space station as a child.

Yet two events –the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks–drew her to military service to help counter what she realized was a "darker" world than she knew as a child.

"It really made me realize that Iwanted to serve and commit myself to something that was bigger than just me," she said in a NASA interview.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2010, Barron spent a week in thesubmarine warfare community, including one day "underway" with a submarine. Her timing was fortuitous: Even a year earlier, she would've been denied the opportunity to serve,as the Navy had excluded all women from the "silent" service before 2011.

"I was so impressed by the sailors on that submarine," she said in the interview."They just seemed like the kind of people who would teach me how to be a good leader."

It didn't take long for her to make an impression on Klein, then commanding officerof the USS Maine. She was a natural in a world where "a bunch of folks lockthemselves in a steel tube for a couple monthsandhave to figure out how to get along and accomplish a mission," he said.

Officers typically require their entire first patrol—or more—to qualify as watch-standers in engineering, monitoring the boat's nuclear reactor.

"She was already standing watch within her first patrol," Klein said.

The captain was confident enough to give her a major project on a trip to the Navy's Acoustic Training Facility in southeast Alaska, planning the boat's operations 24 hours a dayfor a week. Again, she worked ahead of what her superiors expected.

"You pointed her at the target, and you had to be careful if you didn't want the target shot too soon," he joked.

Some of the Maine's sailors struggled with passing the intense Prospective Nuclear Engineer Officer examination. Part of the pressure is that candidates can only take it twice; failure both times means the end of that career line. Barron, after completing her exam, formed an officer study program to help others, Klein said.

"After she knocked the socks off it, she came back and said, 'Hey, what can we do to help others succeed?'" Klein said.

Barron left the submarine in 2015 to take a position serving as flag aide toVice Adm.Walter"Ted" Carter Jr., the superintendent of the Naval Academy. Through him, she had the fortune of meetingKathryn "Kay"Hire, a veteran astronaut fromthe Space Shuttle program.

Talking to her was a "lightning strike" moment: "I said,you know, that sounds a lot like a submarine in space," Barron told NASA.

'More important to be brave than fearless'

Barron became the fifth woman from the Naval Academy to become an astronaut. Strapped in aboard the Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft on Nov. 10, theFalcon 9 rocket pushed Barron and three others to the International Space Station. She became one of more than 240 people to visit the longest continually-inhabited space station, now in operation for more than two decades.

Aside from performing science experiments,Barron will help maintain the station as a mission specialistuntil her first time in space is up in April. Her first spacewalk, at more than six hours, took place on Dec. 2, fixing a faulty antenna.

Barron seems to possess a steely nerve about the dangers of space, including Russia's widely condemned missile test in Novemberthat scattered satellite debris in the space near the ISS.The crew was forced to shelter in capsules.

"I always feel our training prepares us to deal with those unexpected circ*mstances that come up," she said Monday, adding "It's more important to be brave than fearless."

NASA's ambitious plan for astronauts like Barron is to be walking on the moon again in the mid-2020s, with a permanent base there by 2030. The location is thewell-mapped lunar south pole, where astronauts may find critical ice deposits and learn lessons that will prepare NASA for the furthermission to Mars.

There'll be similarities between Artemis and the Apollo missionthat, a half century ago, sent 12 men to the moon's surface for the first time and brought them safely back to Earth. For one, NASA is designing crafts to orbit the moonand to land on itsimilar to how an Apollo astronaut remained in orbit above the lunar surface while two others landed.

For now, Barron said she is savoring her time on the station, even just peering back down at the Earth. She said she's been brushing up on her geography, though she still finds herself picking out Seattle and other places where her family lives.

Her time as a Navyengineering officer aboard the USS Maine, homeported at Naval Base Kitsap in Puget Sound, is never far from her mind. Theparallels of the air-tight, pressurizedundersea environmentand space are many, she noted.

But, she says, there is one major difference between space and the undersea world. Gravity.

"You have to get used to the fact that if you let go of something, like I let go of this microphone, and look away for too long,you might never see the microphone again," she joked during the interview.

Josh Farley is a reporter coveringthe military and Bremerton for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-9227, or on Twitter at@joshfarley.

Submariner-turned-astronaut Kayla Barron is already going where few women have gone. Is the moon next? (2024)
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