Deborah Barnhart Describes Herself as a “Rocket Baby”

Deborah Barnhart is a self-described “rocket baby, ” a child who grew up in Huntsville during the booming years when the von Braun team led the U.S. toward space. So there’s an almost orbital symmetry in her 2010 return to Huntsville to become the CEO and executive director of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

“When I was growing up, we heard thundering booms across the [Tennessee] Valley every afternoon as they tested rockets on the arsenal, rattling windowpanes for 35 miles around, ” says Barnhart. “So I grew up with that thundering in my chest.”

With the spirit of the Rocket City in her bones, Barnhart always seemed to know she’d someday play a role in its story. Right after completing college, she briefly worked in communications at the newly formed Rocket Center, where she was able to meet von Braun. Although she left to join the Navy, the Rocket Center, and its story of human triumph, always beckoned her back.

A Varied Career

Barnhart joined the U.S. Navy because it was busy with satellite work at the time and seemed to offer her a good entry point to a satellite career.

But other options sailed over her horizon, and she became one of the first 10 women assigned to duty on a Navy ship. There she learned that “fighting and driving Navy vessels was more fun than anything, ” she says. What she’d thought would be a four-year stint turned into 26 years, and Barnhart retired as a Navy captain.

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After retirement, she discovered that space still beckoned, so she moved back to Huntsville as director of Space Camp. After four years there, she moved into the private sector, working for aerospace and defense contractors. She served as vice president of three Dow 30 aerospace and defense companies, serving in manufacturing, business development, program and research management, and congressional lobbying for Honeywell International, McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) and United Technologies Aerospace.

Barnhart was working for Honeywell in Florida when the top job at the Space Center became available. She had watched with distress as the headlines recounted the museum’s dire financial situation in previous years, and she was ready to accept the challenge of nudging the Center back to its original mission of training and inspiring the next generation of leaders.

“I love the Rocket Center, ” Barnhart says. “Having been here very early in its first days, and then for a few years when Space Camp was new, I just have a commitment to the mission here and believe it’s the most important thing I can do. There’s nothing more important than cracking people’s cosmic eggs to find out what they can become.”

Boosting the Space Center

After four and a half years at the Space & Rocket Center, Barnhart has largely achieved her initial goal of righting the Center’s unpleasant financial situation. The Center has overcome its $6 million credit debt, as well as bond issue debt, and is now self-sustaining on its own revenue, a highly unusual state for museums. (The Biltmore in North Carolina is the only other museum in the country Barnhart can name that is entirely self-sustaining.) “This museum had to have a financial foundation under it to ensure its future, ” Barnhart says.

And it’s an important museum, as Alabama’s No. 1 tourist attraction, drawing significant numbers of international visitors, and home to U.S. Space Camp®, U.S. Space Academy®, Aviation Challenge®, and Robotics Camp, as well as the only Saturn V rocket that is a National Historic Landmark. These days, the Rocket Center experiences steady, predictable growth of 5 percent to 10 percent each year. Last year, the Rocket Center welcomed 626, 000 visitors and brought in more than $24 million, with about half from educational programs and camps, and half from museum ticket sales.

To become financially healthy, Barnhart launched several initiatives that have given the Rocket Center a broader footprint, focusing attention on finding audiences in the local Huntsville community, as well as around the world. For instance, the museum upgraded the quality of its national traveling exhibitions. Recent exhibits have included Math Alive and the Robot Zoo.

“Huntsville is a very sophisticated audience and deserves sophisticated exhibits, ” Barnhart says.

In addition, Barnhart’s team created its own outbound traveling exhibitions, taking the story of Huntsville and the American space journey around the world to cities like Prague and Seoul.

“We wanted to raise the profile of the museum, ” Barnhart says. “We are a Smithsonian affiliate, and our Saturn V rocket is the largest asset in the Smithsonian collection. We also help and mentor other Smithsonian affiliates across the country.”

In addition to launching and recruiting new exhibits, Barnhart focused on ways to capitalize on the Rocket Center’s existing assets, such as its theaters, which include the largest dome theater in the country. She began bringing in first-run films like “Interstellar” and formed a partnership with National Geographic to show its films.

Along with showing films, Barnhart and her team have launched a number of other initiatives to reach out to the local community, such as hosting concerts and plays. Every Thursday afternoon, the Rocket Center hosts a Biergarten to celebrate its German heritage and invite locals (including their dogs and children) into its gates for food trucks, beer and live music. Last year, more than 10, 000 attended the events from March through October.

Barnhart has also worked to install exhibits that offer local appeal, such as one that chronicles “101 Inventions of Rocket City.” Another new exhibit, “Science Fiction, Science Future, ” chronicles how science fiction ideas and concepts of today could become the science reality of tomorrow.

“We wanted to reach out to the Huntsville community and make them feel like they own the museum, to engage many different constituencies of people who may not have felt connected to the Center in the past, ” Barnhart says.

The strategy seems to be working, as museum membership has increased 350 percent in the past four years.

With a number of new artifacts on the way and crowds of visitors and Space Campers almost every week of the year, Barnhart’s Space & Rocket Center has once again become a vibrant, financially strong, sustainable museum attraction that brings visitors to the state and shares the amazing stories of Alabama’s people reaching their potential and changing the world.

“We are just sticking to our mission, trying to serve this community and inspire people, cracking that cosmic egg and develop the future workforce,  just like von Braun envisioned, ” Barnhart says.

Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.

text by nancy mann jackson • photo by dennis keim

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