Ex-Navy captain lifts space legacy
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Her life may be firmly grounded on Earth, but Dr. Deborah Barnhart dreams of space travel, stars and planets, and the next space habitat.

What else could be on her mind when she has an up-close view of the space shuttle right outside her office window?

This retired Navy captain is "living outer space" these days as the chief executive officer and executive director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. But while visions of space dance in her head, Barnhart is focused on bringing the center back from the edge of financial ruin; working on an aggressive marketing and development campaign to increase the center's attendance numbers; developing new permanent space, military and energy exhibits; and building partnerships in the local defense and aerospace community.

"I am so thrilled to be here," she said on a recent afternoon as she looked through drawings for future center exhibits.

"Our job is to be a showcase of technology for NASA, the Army and the corporate aerospace world. Dr. Wernher von Braun (internationally recognized German rocket scientist who began the nation's space program at Redstone Arsenal and who worked to establish the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in 1965) said he wanted this museum to be a showcase for what is happening in Huntsville and that continues as my focus."

That focus is broad and inclusive of the science and technology research and development of space and military systems in Huntsville that have taken man to the moon, led the nation's military dominance and made the U.S. the world's technology leader. The rocket technology developed at Redstone Arsenal by von Braun and his team of German and American scientists is the basis for a museum collection that makes the U.S. Space & Rocket Center home to the world's largest collection of space artifacts. Currently, an exhibit titled "100 Years of Von Braun: His American Journey" is on display through May 15. And as the center prepares to celebrate von Braun's 100th birthday on March 23, Barnhart fully grasps the importance of her role in building on the center's legacy for the future.

"This center belongs to the state of Alabama and to the people of Alabama, and I am von Braun's handmaiden to continue the work," Barnhart said.

"Redstone Arsenal donated the land for the Space & Rocket Center. That donation made it possible for the state to build the museum that von Braun envisioned. He wanted this center to educate and to inspire interest in science and technology, and rockets. My favorite quote of his is 'All one can really leave one's children is what's inside their heads. Education, in other words, and not earthly possessions, is the ultimate legacy, the only thing that cannot be taken away.' The Space & Rocket Center is a place to inspire that legacy."

This is the fourth time Barnhart's career has brought her to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. She came to Huntsville as a young girl when her father took a job at Marshall Space Flight Center. Barnhart attended elementary school just a quarter of a mile from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and graduated from Butler High School and the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 1973.

During her last year of college, Barnhart worked in public affairs and marketing at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. A few years later, she was again on the center's staff, managing publicity for the newest addition to the center's museum -- the space shuttle.

"That's when I became interested in satellites. At that time, the Navy was in charge of all satellite programs. My father had been a Navy Seabee in World War II and my brother attended the Naval Academy. So, at the age of 27, I joined the Navy to work on satellites," Barnhart said.

She attended Officers Candidate School, graduating at the top of a class of about 500 and receiving the Navy's top assignment -- sea duty. Realizing the opportunity to be one of the first women to serve at sea, Barnhart shifted her interest in satellites to commanding ships.

"I was the seventh woman to be certified to fight on and drive Navy vessels," she said. "I drove ships on the west coast and the east coast. I loved the Navy, and the ability to see the world as a finite place. I've heard it said that everyone joins the military to get away from something, to 'get out of Dodge.' And maybe I did want to get out of Dodge, but I also joined the military to go toward something, to pursue an interest and an opportunity."

Though she was a member of a prestigious group of women who opened doors for women's equality in the military, she doesn't consider herself a trailblazer.

"When I think of a trailblazer, I think of all those nurses who served on the battlefield in World War I or World War II's Rosie the Riveters (American women who worked in the factories to produce munitions and war supplies). I think of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, whose work led to the development of the first modern computer program languages," she said.

"There are trailblazers who have come before all of us. But, for me, the Navy wasn't about trailblazing. It was about the experience of a lifetime."

The Navy taught her that "time is a precious resource." It taught her about the world and about technology. It taught her how to command, lead, persevere and overcome challenges.

"The Navy provided the broadest opportunities," she said. "I went around the world three or four times, and I came to understand the other two-thirds of the world, the waters that surround us. In the Navy, you can experience submarines, the amphibious and ground maneuvers of the Marine Corps, surface ships, Navy air and space aspects, Aegis (ballistic missile defense system) and missile defense. And the Navy still has a large role in space as well."

Barnhart said ship and submarine living mirrors living in space.

"Just like in a big space station, when you live at sea you are totally self-sustained," she said. "You have to take everything you need with you and you are working in a hostile environment. You are self-contained and disconnected from the rest of the world. It's the closest analogy to a lunar base that you can get on Earth."

During her 26-year military career, Barnhart also served as a Navy reservist. Along the way, she had two children, pursued a doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University and found her way back to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for a third time. From 1986-90, Barnhart served as the director of Space Camp and Space Academy, working with the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's first director, Ed Buckbee. She also wrote curriculum for the center's Space Academy II, the teachers' program and the Aviation Challenge program.

She left the center to pursue a career in private industry, working as a vice president at Hamilton Sundstrand Space, Sea Systems International, and Honeywell Space and Defense.

"At Honeywell, I did become involved in classified satellite work that was largely associated with spacecraft," she said, finally realizing her earlier aspiration of a career in satellite technology.

After retiring, Barnhart lived in Florida, where she owned and managed two thoroughbred training centers and did management consulting until she was sought out by members of the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission to replace retiring U.S. Space & Rocket Center director Larry Capps. She became the center's fourth director in January 2011.

"When the board called me, my first reaction was they could get somebody better," she recalled. "But they kept calling me and then they finally told me the financial situation."

At the time, the center was $19 million in debt, much of which had overshadowed the center since 1998 when then director Mike Wing launched large-scale initiatives that were largely unfunded. The center's financial situation presented Barnhart with a challenge she couldn't ignore.

"There was nothing to lose. We were in extremis, and in the Navy that means we were about to hit something and that's not good," she said. "I said 'I'll fix it or I'll die trying.' This facility is worth spending my life to save."

She brought sweeping change to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center with three missions in mind -- to be a NASA showcase, to be a showcase of Army programs and defense technology, and to be a showcase for energy education and technologies. Besides getting the center's financial situation under control, she has also restructured the organization to consolidate positions, launched a new marketing program that includes heavy use of social media, began the development of new exhibits for the center that will also be leased as traveling exhibits, and began work on new features, such as a simulator for lunar, planetary and Mars missions, that will set the center's future path.

"My number one imperative since I've been here is for us to be self-sustaining and to get operational equilibrium that will help us reduce the debt," she said.

"In my first year here, we reduced the debt by $1 million. It's a start that puts us on the right path. And we are really improving and firing up our marketing, and re-knitting with the community and corporate world here as well as with international partners."

The results of Barnhart's dedication have come quickly for the $22 million-a-year-business that attracts more than 500,000 visitors each year. Besides reducing debt, attendance grew by about 13 percent in 2011 after 10 years of decline and is expected to grow another 10 percent this year. The center has been featured on four television shows and in the Hallmark movie "A Smile as Big as the Moon." The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is once again the state's top tourist attraction.

"In everything that we do, we want to inspire that next generation of explorers," Barnhart said.

The biggest challenge facing the center is to develop new exhibits that keep the science and technology, and the story of space "current, relevant and inspirational." The center is home to the largest collection of space artifacts in the world, including two Saturn 5s, the full space shuttle stack with the external tank and solid rocket booster and 13 aircraft.

"We want to be a regional and national science center, not just an artifact museum. We want to keep the exhibits fresh and keep the inspiration strong," Barnhart said. "Building on our robust artifact base, I want to create a science center like no other that stimulates scientific and technical education with hands-on exhibits that include NASA, the Army and companies located here."

The center's audiences are threefold -- the tourists who want to view the museum's artifacts and exhibits, the Space Camp and Aviation Challenge participants who want a full range of simulated space travel experiences, and the local community who want a reason -- new exhibits, events and social gatherings -- to revisit the center over and over again.

Toward that end, the center will open an Earth Day exhibit on April 20 that will include exhibits on everything from helio-physics to energy efficient cars. Later this year, the center will host the "Math Alive!" exhibit for school groups. And a master plan for the center's 432 acres includes an advanced technology and future war fighter permanent exhibit in the main building, as well as an expansion of its outdoor displays and exhibits.

"I want people who come here -- children and adults -- to discover this small planet and its relationship in the galaxy and the cosmos," Barnhart said. "I want to crack that cosmic egg so that visitors here realize how fragile this tiny, blue world is, and that we better take care of it and that we need to find other planets like it.

"I hope to influence future voters and keep the space legacy alive."

With 500,000 Space Camp alumni and many thousands of others who visit the U.S. Space & Rocket Center every year, there's no doubt that von Braun's dream for a space museum is still relevant while also evolving with space development. For Barnhart, she hopes to someday be her own space exhibit by actually flying into space on a commercial spacecraft.

"The fundamentals of space exploration don't change. Propulsion, communications and life support don't change. But how we go about exploring space does change," she said. "The space shuttle has graduated, and now we are working toward having a space launch system for deep space exploration. And we will have more commercialization of space. I fully expect that I will be able to fly into space around the Earth someday. I'm saving my money to pay for that trip."

Editor's note: The U.S. Space & Rocket Center will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dr. Wernher von Braun's birthday March 23 with cocktails at 6 p.m. and dinner at 7 in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. Dr. Margrit von Braun, von Braun's daughter and a college dean at the University of Idaho, will be the guest speaker. There will be German cuisine, and music and dancing. For reservations, call Jennifer Crozier at 430-6702 or email jennc@spacecamp.com.