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Aug. 19, 2022

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Richland astronaut relearns gravity, readies for next assignment after return to Earth


RICHLAND — Richland astronaut Kayla Barron has been getting used to gravity since returning to Earth after her six months aboard the International Space Station.

Her initial assignment since splashing down off the coast of Florida the night of May 5 (West Coast time) has been to complete science projects started aboard the space station and adjust to life on Earth.

She’s expecting to spend the next few months sharing information about the experiences of Crew 3 on the International Space Station, including possible in-person visits to the Tri-Cities and Seattle once school is back in session so she can meet with students.

Then she’ll move on to her next assignment, which could be related to the United States’ return to the moon.

On the night of May 5 she was helped out of the SpaceX Dragon Endurance after it was lifted onto a recovery boat and then was wheeled away for a medical check after 175 days in microgravity.

Adapting to gravity since then has been “weird and it is definitely challenging,” Barron told the Tri-City Herald.

She’s been doing physical training and therapy and is mostly adjusted, she said.

Barron and gravity

But the bodies of the four members of Crew 3 got used to microgravity over half a year and their neurovestibular systems — which helped them understand where their bodies were in space — have required some remapping.

Her first day or two back on Earth it took effort just to walk safely, she said.

It’s not just getting used to balancing and coordination and managing the weight of legs and arms that requires some relearning.

“We’re not used to having to hold onto objects,” she said. “We’re used to managing their mass but not their weight. So understanding how much force you need to apply to even hold onto something is challenging.”

Crew 3 had been preparing for returning to gravity from their first days on the space station.

Barron worked out every day lifting weights and also doing cardiovascular exercise.

She posted video to her NASA astronaut page of running on the treadmill, tethered to the machine with a harness.

“One of the favorite parts is the incredible view. When you are working out you get to look out the window,” she said in the video.

“As far as I know it’s got the best view of any gym in the world or off the planet,” she said.

Because the space station orbits Earth 16 times a day, those onboard get to see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets daily, and “every single one is beautiful and unique,” she posted to her Facebook page.

NASA versus Navy

Her feelings were mixed as she left the International Space Station.

She was excited to see family, including parents Scott and Laurie Sax of Richland, Wash., and her husband, Tom Barron. Missing family and friends was the toughest part of her time on the space station, she said.

But living aboard the space station was a “transformative experience and an extraordinary privilege,” she posted just days before she left.

“If I am lucky enough to fly again I can only hope that it is even close to how awesome that mission was,” she said.

She had expected living on the space station to be somewhat similar to her time on Navy submarines.

Before becoming an astronaut, she served on the USS Maine submarine in the first class of women commissioned to be a submarine officer.

“All the things I expected to be similar really proved to be true,” she told the Tri-City Herald. “… It was really similar in that all these skills I developed during my time in the submarine force I really got to put into use in my time aboard the space station.”

Like Naval submarines, space flights require long missions operating complicated equipment, communicating with team members, making decisions with input from specialists and then executing tasks, she said when she qualified for travel to the International Space Station.

And both environments require similar equipment to keep humans alive in environments where they are not designed to live, she said after her return to Earth.

Crew 3 — which also included NASA astronauts Tom Marshburn and Raja Chari, plus Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency — were fortunate to get to see a full range of operations in their time aboard the space station, Barron said.

“We were really lucky to get to do all the things we trained for,” she said. “… It was hugely developmental, especially for a crew that had three rookies who were flying for the first time.”

Spacewalks and spacebees

The first all-private astronaut crew arrived while they were onboard, spending two weeks with them. They saw the Ruffian Soyuz spacecraft depart and a SpaceX cargo vehicle arrive.

Barron bookended her stay with two spacewalks.

They were “incredible,” she said, but were also the “ultimate experience in terms that it takes physical stamina, mental focus, team work, a lot of technical skills and knowledge of the equipment” plus the extensive support of a ground team.

The experts who designed and built the hardware she was installing on the outside of the space station were standing by to advise her and her fellow spacewalkers when the had any issue, helping them to efficiently find a solution as the clock ticked down on their battery power and oxygen supply, she said.

She enjoyed the views from the space station throughout her stay, but the views of Earth outside the station took her breath away, she said.

“Outside looking through the visor of your helmet there is nothing in your peripheral vision, so nothing obstructs your view,” she said.

Some of the most interesting research she worked on were projects to prepare NASA for future space missions, she said.

They ranged from understanding how to reclaim more water from the crew’s urine processing unit to teaching NASA Astrobees to perform routine tasks to free up astronaut time for things that only humans can do.

The free-flying robots, in the shape of 12.5-inch-wide cubes, were tested with a miniature electronic scanning microscope while she was there.

The Astrobees might be used in the future on tasks suck as scanning rock samples on the Moon so scientists on Earth can decide which are the most important to bring home.

The robots also are used with an RFID scanner for finding lost objects.

“Microgravity is a tough environment to work in and it is not uncommon for you to think you have something properly secured and then it just disappears and you don’t know where it is,” Barron said.

Barron’s next NASA mission

Now that she’s back at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, NASA continues to collect data to compare to the Crew 3’s performance in flight and conducts medical tests to make sure the crew is healthy.

“Eventually in the fall I’ll be getting back into a technical assignment within the astronaut office,” Barron said.

She’s hoping to be assigned to a space exploration project as NASA prepares to return to the moon in its Artemis program.

NASA plans to land the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon and to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. It plans to work with commercial and international partners to set up a base camp on the Moon and establish the first long-term presence there.

What’s learned on and around the moon in the Artemis program will be used to take the next major step for NASA, sending astronauts to Mars.

“I’m not sure what the future holds, but the Artemis program is definitely really exciting and I’m looking forward to contributing whatever way makes sense,” Barron said.

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