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Flying together: Astronauts Anne McClain, Kayla Barron say they’re teammates in trip to moon

Whoever the first woman is to step foot on the moon, expect Eastern Washington natives Anne McClain and Kayla Barron to be ecstatic.

“I can tell you that our office is so cohesive, and so tight, that a success for one person is really a success for everybody,” McClain said in an interview from her office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We all feel like we had a part in that, and so it’s really fun to be part of a team like that.”

“Whoever from this cadre ends up being the first woman on the moon, we’ll be standing on the shoulders of women who have been completing firsts for decades at NASA,” Barron said.

Both women are part of an 18-member crew announced Wednesday for Artemis, the space agency’s plan to return humans to the moon within the next four years for the first time since 1972. The project, which seeks to establish a sustainable base on the moon’s south pole to help slingshot humanity to Mars, is named for the twin goddess of Apollo in Greek mythology. Apollo, of course, was the name of the initiative that landed Neil Armstrong and others on the moon beginning in 1969.

Barron, 33, of Richland, said she hasn’t allowed herself to think about her 1-in-9 chances of being the first woman to walk on the moon. There’s too much time and training, she said, and flight assignments for Artemis III – the first portion of the mission that will actually make a lunar landing – are years away.

“When I stand outside at night and look up at the moon, every once in a while I’ll try imagine myself standing on the moon and looking back at Earth,” said Barron, who reached the rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and was assigned to submarines before beginning astronaut training in 2017. “It’s just such a hard thing to wrap your head around.”

McClain, 41, of Spokane, has been thinking about that possibility for years, telling students at her alma mater, Gonzaga Prep, that her passion to explore the stars began early.

“I think I’ve thought about it since I was a 3-year-old going to day care,” McClain said. “But something important that we’re all really aware of is the day-to-day work that it takes to make this program happen safely.”

When the first woman does walk on the moon, though, it has the potential to continue a shift in the culture surrounding science and technology that has historically been male-centric, said Sara Díaz, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Gonzaga University. She noted that NASA’s history has included women working behind the scenes, such as Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, the three Black mathematicians whose work helped guide the early days of America’s space exploration.

“I think this is an excellent continuation of making women’s work visible,” Díaz said. “It’s allowing women to be the face, rather than just behind the scenes.”

Barron and McClain are quick to point out the accomplishments of the team, before conjecturing about what they might accomplish individually. That’s been a quality NASA has sought out in its newer generations of astronauts, who are training for longer space flights than the spacemen of yesteryear, said Peggy Whitson, a retired NASA astronaut and record-holder for the most space walks and longest time in space by a woman in history.

“When we started selecting for longer duration fliers, like Anne and Kayla, we were selecting people that I think are much more interested in team objectives than maybe some of the original guys,” said Whitson, who was part of the selection team that picked McClain, an Army lieutenant colonel and combat pilot, for astronaut training in 2013.

Whitson is also the first woman to twice serve as commander of the International Space Station. She described herself and McClain as “fitness fanatics,” bonding over the tough physical training that prepares astronauts for weightless ventures that can last months at a time. While she hasn’t spent as much time with Barron (Whitson retired from NASA in June 2018, the year after Barron began her training), Whitson said the professionalism and teamwork ethic is also present in the 33-year-old.

“I think this group of people are among the best qualified for lots of reasons,” Whitson said. “They all could do the job.”

That job will involve years of continued physical training, as well as work with a next-generation spacesuit designed specifically for the longer trips on the moon’s surface that are envisioned as part of the Artemis mission. It’s that work, collecting rock samples in areas that never receive sunlight and samples of layered rock that could provide clues about historic solar winds, that most excites Barron.

It’s also a bit nerve-wracking.

“Going out there, on behalf of all the planetary geologists on Earth who’ve trained us and were really interested in the scientific discoveries, being their emissary on another planetary body and trying to make correct decisions… What samples are we going to bring home? What looks out of place?” Barron said.

Having already been in space and benefited from the groundbreaking work of past astronauts, McClain said her biggest thrill will be to help build the equipment necessary for expeditions decades down the line.

“I was on the space station in 2018 and 2019, and that was about 20 years after the first piece went up,” she said. “When I’ve talked to former astronauts, even if I’ve never met them, they’ll say something like, ‘Do you remember node one?’ They’ll say, ‘I installed that.’

“This is not just for boot prints. This is like, space station-level architecture, but we’re going to put it in lunar orbit. Which means we are going to build something that, 20 years from now, people will be living in.”

Though they may credit the team for the accomplishments to come, McClain, Barron and Whitson all said the presence of women on the team is a logical next step to humans’ exploration of the stars.

“We have many qualified women,” Whitson said. “I think it’s absolutely logical that they would be there along with their male counterparts.”

“I think for us, that accomplishment will be huge,” Barron said. “Because we know it will be an inspiration to women and girls all over the world.”

There’s scholarship that indicates seeing women in scientific positions has the possibility to change attitudes and inspire young people, Díaz pointed out. She referred to the “Draw-a-Scientist test,” a long-running social science experiment inspired by the work of famous female anthropologist Margaret Mead. The test, which includes many variations, asks students to draw what a scientist looks like. Witnessing female scientists caused students to stray away from the lab-coated, eyeglass-wearing men resembling Albert Einstein that is the typical depiction students draw, and female astronauts can only add to that nuanced understanding of science, Díaz said.

“Astronauts are kind of interesting, because many of them are trained as scientists, but they’re oftentimes pilots, or explorers,” Díaz said. “It’s a very particular kind of a social position that’s really different than a lot of other scientists.”

McClain said the diversity on the team reflected a recruiting effort that’s picking the best people for the job.

“(The team) is half women, and half men, and so is the population,” McClain said. “What that tells me is when we cast a net, or really anybody casts a net for the best candidates for a job, if they truly cast that net in a way that doesn’t discriminate, then you’re going to get a very diverse applicant pool.”

There’s no guarantee all 18 members of the Artemis mission will one day walk on the moon.

But if she gets the chance, McClain said, there will be a bit of the Inland Northwest on board with her, just as she donned a Bullpups T-shirt while aboard the space station.

“That exact one has a very special significance,” McClain said of the shirt. “But I will definitely take some tokens of Spokane.”

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