Space Center’s New Captain’s New Tack

Deborah Barnhart became the CEO and executive director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in December 2010. The Center is the official Visitor Information Center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, and the showcase for Redstone Arsenal and Army programs. Home to U.S. Space Camp, U.S. Space Academy and Aviation Challenge, the Center was Alabama’s second most visited tourist attraction in 2010. Owing to its education mission, it is one of the few Alabama tourist attractions not to have its funding cut this year—getting the same allotment as the year before, $515, 164, from the education trust fund budget.

Barnhart’s career spans three decades of service in commercial industry, government, aerospace and defense. A retired Navy captain, she was one of the first 10 women assigned to duty aboard ships and commanded five units in her 26-year career. She was vice president of three Dow 30 aerospace and defense companies, serving in manufacturing, business development, and congressional lobbying for Honeywell International, McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing), and United Technologies Hamilton Sundstrand.

Barnhart earned her doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University, holds degrees from the University of Maryland, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and is a Sloan Fellow (MBA) from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She returned to her childhood home of Huntsville to take the new job. “When I was in school in Huntsville as a child, we could hear the windows shaking from the rockets being tested, ” she recalls. “That’s when I caught the bug, and I never got over it. My father was an engineer at NASA. We moved to Huntsville in 1959.”

I found, as I took over, that we had a considerable line of credit debt, and I have restructured that to better fit the size of the debt to the number of people coming in the front door. We have met the need for our line of credit for the next two years, and now there is a huge marketing campaign to bring more students into the Space Camp program. In my view, everyone in the country has someone in his family who needs to come to Space Camp. And if we do that, we won’t have a problem.

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I restructured the organization to consolidate positions, to have licensing and administration work more closely and co-mingling advancement and development and marketing, so they can work more cohesively, and we adjusted the staffing to the number of visitors. In all, 16 full-time jobs were cut, which gives us $1.2 million in savings and allows us to meet out financial obligations going forward.

Our mission is to be self-sustaining on our own revenue. We do receive $515, 000 from the state and a small amount from the city of Huntsville and the Davidson Foundation to promote tourism and extra stays in the area, and we have other guest programs, donors and foundations. Our foundation is starting an endowment this year. The Space Science Exhibit Commission is a governing body appointed by the governor. The foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization, and they do a lot to help us find funds for new exhibits.

We have the world’s most robust collection of space artifacts: the only complete shuttle stack—complete with the solid rocket booster—in the world, and two Saturn 5s. Those form the backbone of the broadest space collection in the world, including the Smithsonian. They have more aircraft, but we have more space artifacts. And we also have the Wernher von Braun collection, which is used routinely by researchers and authors. We just opened, in the last couple years, the national landmark Saturn V rocket in the Davidson Space Exploration Center. The space community is keen to see that the historical artifacts are preserved in perpetuity, to serve as stimulation to the younger generation to enter science and technology. I really look at us as a workforce development tool.

I don’t really have five-year goals. It’s more of a mission than goals: to create, out of our fabulous collection, a regional science center that will stimulate scientific and technical education with incredible hands-on exhibits that will include, besides NASA, the technology being developed at the Army Missile Command and the companies in and around Huntsville.

Although there has been a change in the NASA mission and though NASA funding is somewhat delayed, we are going ahead with our new capsule that arrived for the moon/Mars mission, that shows the terrain, and we have the Constellation prototype, from the mission that was canceled. This is a new asset for our training programs. We have always had space shuttle simulators. The basic building blocks of space exploration don’t change: propulsion, telemetry, biometrics, communications. Those are the foundation. We’re focusing on how those topics lead to accomplishments in exploration.

The Rocket Center and Space Camp are all about education: It is our core mission. Education is the only legacy we can leave our children, and the only legacy that can’t be taken away is the legacy in their heads. Space Camp is a globally known entity. Honestly, the thing that happens, when people come to Space Camp, the training wheels come off. It’s their first chance to open their eyes and see who they can become. It can be an astronaut, a lawyer, an administrator. And we can bring as many through as we can; we’ve got tons of room. Our board and committees are all focused on the education and on doing what’s right for the people in Alabama and in the region. They will do whatever is needed to restore the integrity of the program and reach out to the community around us with this educational mission.

Corporate clients are a smaller percentage of our Space Camp visitors, but of a high quality. Companies like Boeing and senior executives from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) send their senior staff for leadership training. That’s where we focus: leadership, teamwork and technology.

To market Space Camp, we’re reaching out through the media, to Boy’s Life and Girl’s Life, with display advertising. Dr. (David) Bronner has graciously helped us to get Raycom Media to provide commercial time for the Rocket Center on Raycom stations. We also have installed a social media director and we are talking daily with chaperone teachers in the classrooms through Twitter and Facebook, and we have astronauts on there talking with folks through the social media and interfacing with That’s where our clients live. Before I came, they weren’t doing that, so I said, we need to go and get on where our kids are and our people are. That’s free except for the price of a person who interfaces.

Children still respond to the space program actually quite well. They still see in the their future the possibilities, and now so much more so, with their hands on experience with technology. I find these times to be interesting in aviation and space. And our aviation training is challenging.

We are always going to be a showcase for NASA, but as the missile programs of the Army continue to expand, there has been a broadening of our purview to be a showcase for those programs. It was built into our mission in the statute that established the Center in the ‘70s, as well as being an energy showcase. In previous years, we have not focused on energy, but that also is becoming more of an emphasis with the growing need for educating the public about energy technology.

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.

Interview by Chris McFadyen

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