Kayla Barron’s only destination after graduating from astronaut school was a celebratory dinner with her family.
Beyond that? Well, there’s the moon. Maybe even Mars.
Barron, 32, a native of Richland, was one of 12 people to graduate from NASA’s Astronaut Training program last Friday, and is now eligible for her first space mission.
“It’s hard to explain how excited we are,” Barron said last week from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she was based during her training.
She has settled down there with her husband, Tom, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer , while she awaits her first flight assignment as an astronaut. That could be on the International Space Station; exploring deep space through missions on NASA’s Orion spacecraft; or working on one of two American-made spacecraft currently being developed for commercial purposes: Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner or the SpaceX Crew Dragon.
For now, Barron is working with the teams designing the space suits for the Artemis Program, which aims to return humans — including the first woman — to the surface of the moon by 2024. Additional lunar missions are planned once a year after that, and human exploration of Mars is planned for the mid-2030s.
“In space years,” Barron said, “that’s just around the corner.”
The goal of Artemis, she said, is to land on the south pole of the moon, a region not explored during the Apollo missions. The area is a “permanently shadowed region that didn’t see any sunlight,” Barron said, “and really cold. So we will be able to find ice water.”
The plan is to get resources from the moon for humans to drink, but also for making rocket fuel by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. NASA sees commercial partnerships with Boeing and SpaceX as huge opportunities, she said.
“The idea is that NASA is not the only customer,” Barron said. “They can sell their services to other folks, which creates a space economy. There is a lot more innovation that way, and it also reduces the price for the taxpayer.”
It all started at Richland High School, where she graduated in 2006. She was inspired by 9/11 to enter the U.S. Naval Academy, where she had plans to become a fighter pilot, but found a better fit as a submarine warfare officer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering and, as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Cambridge in England.
Barron was one of the first female officers assigned to the USS Maine, a nuclear submarine home-ported in Bangor, Kitsap County. She was one of three-to-five women out of a 160-member crew.
When she was chosen for the training in 2017, Barron was one of just 12 hopefuls chosen from a record number of 18,300 candidates. That’s one out of 1,500.
“Kayla has always sought to do the next great thing, the next hardest thing,” said her father, Scott Sax, who works as a project engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy at Hanford. “She’s always taken that challenge, and this is a mix of science and pioneering. She’s just getting started.”
Sax used to think about working for NASA: “What I could have done is what she is doing,” Sax said. “It’s nice that in our society today, when we’re all so polarized, we are all behind our astronauts.”
Sax owns a telescope, and still gazes at the stars, but the view has changed.
“The sky is more personal now,” he said.
NASA now has 48 active astronauts in its corps, and the agency is considering plans to open the application process this spring for the next class of candidates.
Barron’s class became very close over the two years, learning Russian, training for space walks, “which was really challenging, but always the most fun,” she said.
Despite her background and education, Barron will have no specialty as an astronaut.
“In most ways, astronauts are generalists,” she said. “They only send a few people into space at a time, so we all have to be jack-of-all-trades. Space capsules aren’t very big.”
She is keeping a close eye on the current space station crew, which includes three American astronauts — two of them women, and all of them from the same class. That’s unusual, she said. Typically, crews are made up of astronauts from different classes so that veterans can fly with rookies.
“They are up there doing really amazing things,” Barron said. “Incredible and challenging work.”
She could be sent up there herself with just a month’s notice, and she feels prepared.
But perhaps not for the wonder of actually being in space. The mass, the mystery of it all. Right?
“You would think,” Barron said. “But not really. Looking behind the curtain, it’s more amazing for me to see the people behind the scenes working, and how talented they are. That makes it all more incredible to me.”