An Interview with NASA Astronaut Kayla Barron
NASA Astronaut Kayla Barron reflects on her past, present, and future in a conversation with Anis Barmada.
NASA Astronaut Kayla Barron after donning her spacesuit at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas (Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls).
Anis Barmada: Welcome, Kayla, thank you for joining us. I want to first ask about your motivation to become an astronaut. Growing up, did you always want to be an astronaut?
Kayla Barron: I did not dream specifically of becoming an astronaut growing up, which makes me a little different from some of my colleagues at NASA. For me, I knew from a young age that I was interested in STEM, especially engineering, and that I wanted to join the military. This drove me to study engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy, and to eventually apply to be a Gates Cambridge Scholar and pursue an MPhil in Nuclear Engineering. My dream of becoming an astronaut did not take hold until after serving on a submarine as a junior officer in the Navy. It was after that experience that I serendipitously met an astronaut, and hearing about her mission assembling the International Space Station, as well as the teamwork needed and engineering challenges they faced, reminded me of my time serving on the submarine. That was the first time I could picture myself doing something like that.
AB: How did you become interested in studying at Cambridge?
KB: While I was at the Naval Academy, I got encouraged by a mentor to consider going to graduate school, and I was very interested in renewable or clean energy, as well as in helping develop solutions to climate change. I realized that nuclear energy was a hugely underutilized resource around the world, so I became really interested in next generation reactor concepts. That is how I found my way to being interested in studying at Cambridge, working with Dr. Geoff Parks for my MPhil project on modelling the fuel cycle for a next generation, thorium-fueled nuclear reactor concept.
AB: Has the Gates Cambridge experience influenced your current perspective and, if so, how?
KB: I did not fully realize when I was applying how much the opportunity to be part of the Gates Cambridge community would influence me. While being a Gates Cambridge Scholar is about pursuing a degree, whether studying or conducting research, a big part of the experience is also joining this global community and exploring opportunities at Cambridge. Coming from the somewhat cloistered environment of a U.S. military academy, the chance to go to Cambridge and be part of such a diverse community allowed me to form friendships with people who grew up all around the world and are passionate about things I had never even thought about before. Those friendships had a big influence on me in terms of how I interact with the world and my curiosity as a person.
Also, Tom and I met during the Gates Cambridge orientation weekend, and the rest is sort of history. So I can credit the Gates community with finding my partner!
AB: What did you do after finishing your degree at Cambridge in 2011 but before joining NASA in 2017?
KB: I came back to the U.S. and started my Navy training, subsequently working aboard a submarine for a few years. I also had the chance to return to the Naval Academy working for the superintendent, Vice Admiral Carter, and while I was there, I applied to come to NASA.
"To think that someday I might get to look down at the moon from a spaceship, or maybe even walk on the surface, is awe-inspiring."
AB: How was the process of applying to become an astronaut? Were there similarities to the process of applying for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship?
KB: I had no idea about this when I first got interested in applying to become an astronaut. Like other government jobs, you just apply online and share your academic and professional experiences. The applications are then reviewed to decide who will be invited to Houston for in-person interviews. In my class, we had two rounds of interviews, where the first group was approximately 120 candidates with 50 proceeding to the final round. After that, you just wait by the phone for a call to find out whether or not you got it. The whole process took about 18 months, where twelve NASA trainees were chosen from more than 18,300 applications.
I think there are definitely some parallels with the Gates Cambridge application process: you try to put your best foot forward in a paper application, hoping that somebody will see some potential and passion in you, and will give you an opportunity to at least meet them for an interview. In both application processes, I really felt like reviewers were interested in who I was as a person, and they were looking for people who were team players and wanted to make a difference in the world.
AB: Besides becoming an astronaut, what other career would you have enjoyed pursuing?
KB: Before becoming an astronaut, I was focused on continuing my career in the Navy and developing myself as a leader. In the longer-term, I would have wanted to continue being part of teams and mission-driven organizations. I am not quite sure what form that would have taken, whether staying in the Navy for a career or pursuing something in a different sector, but I think it would have always come back to something I was passionate about that would challenge me and was in line with my core values as a person. There is a lot within those boundaries where I think I could have ended up, but I am lucky enough to be here at NASA.
AB: In terms of your career, what are your current plans at NASA, both short-term and long-term?
KB: Right now, I am focused on training for a six-month mission to the International Space Station, which is what originally inspired me to become an astronaut. The opportunity to live and work on one of the most incredible engineering marvels in the history of the world is just amazing to me. The space station, which is due to be decommissioned in 2024, has been up there for over 20 years with continuous human presence, doing amazing science and inspiring people, so the chance to be a part of that mission is really exciting.
Looking a little bit longer-term, we are getting focused on the Artemis program here at NASA, which will be our series of missions to return to the moon, orbiting around the moon and also returning to the surface. There is still so much to learn from revisiting the moon, which can tell us a lot about our solar system and help us learn how to live on the surface of another planetary body. The fact that this mission is coming into focus during my career as an astronaut is just such a crazy opportunity. To think that someday I might get to look down at the moon from a spaceship, or maybe even walk on the surface, is awe-inspiring.
"Maintain your passion and curiosity. It can be easy to lose sight of what really drives you at your core."
AB: These plans sound tremendously exciting! How is your day-to-day job at NASA like?
KB: That is a really good question. Astronauts spend only a tiny fraction of their careers actually in space, so between flights, we train and contribute to NASA’s missions in other ways. We are always maintaining core skills and competencies that will apply to any mission, including things like robotics operations, spacewalking, and flying jets where we work on our communication and decision-making in complex, high-risk environments. We also learn to speak Russian because of our partnership with the Russian Space Agency. We also learn about the vehicles we may be flying on and the space station systems we use.
We also support NASA's missions in other ways, like working in the Houston Mission Control Center in a position called capsule communicator, where you are basically the intermediary between the ground control team and the crew on orbit. Another recent role I had was helping with the space suits that we will use for future exploration missions, including the next mission to the moon, working with the engineering team developing that hardware.
AB: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost all aspects of life. How was that impact on your job at NASA?
KB: It has definitely affected us. Just like everywhere, we had to learn how to work in new ways. At NASA, which is a super mission-driven organization, we experimented with different ways to work remotely whether it was supporting the International Space Station from the Mission Control Center, or conducting engineering and science work and astronaut training.
AB: You have had an incredible journey from the Naval Academy to Cambridge to NASA. What stands out to you from this journey?
KB: I have been a beneficiary of amazing mentorship, including my coaches and teachers when I was younger, and especially from the Naval Academy and beyond. My professors, my track and cross-country coaches, and people I worked for in the Navy always empowered me and pushed me to reach my full potential. In many cases, interventions from those mentors gave me the confidence to chase my dreams. I would not be where I am today without their mentorship and support.
AB: Thank you, Kayla, it has been great talking with you. To conclude our interview, what advice would you give students that are currently working towards their ambitions?
KB: I would say maintain your passion and curiosity. It can be easy to lose sight of what really drives you at your core, especially as your life continues to progress and you leave formal education and start pursuing your career. The other thing I would say is focus on learning to be a good team member. I think we can accomplish so much more when we work together than when we work on our own. During your time as a student, it can be easy to be focused on your own individual research goals, but also look for opportunities to develop the skills that will help you work with others and empower the people around you.
Kayla Barron [2010, Peterhouse] studied for an MPhil in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Cambridge, where she met her now-husband—also a Gates Cambridge Scholar—Thomas Barron [2010, St John's College], before joining NASA in 2017.