Women of Influence: U.S. Space and Rocket Center CEO Dr. Deborah Barnhart

Dr. Deborah Barnhart1

Huntsville, Ala. native Dr. Deborah Barnhart has been working on and off with the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville for over 40 years. Her career has taken many different twists and turns, but she finally “landed” at her home base in January of 2011.

Barnhart graduated from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1973; while she was finishing her senior year she worked in the public affairs and marketing offices at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. A few years after graduation she came back on staff at the space center managing publicity for the museum’s newest addition — the Space Shuttle.

At the age of 27, Barnhart decided to switch gears and joined the U.S. Navy, hoping to work with satellites.

However, the Navy had other plans for her. She attended Officers Candidate Schoo (OCS)l, and after graduating at the top of a class of 500 people, was given the opportunity to become one of the first ten women ever to serve on a Navy sea vessel. And she took it.

“I was the seventh woman to be certified to fight on and drive Navy vessels,” she told Kari Hawkins in an interview. “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.”

Barnhart commanded five units, experienced submarines, Navy air and space aspects, and missile defense systems throughout her 26 year military career. When she went into the Navy Reserves, she found her way back to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center for the third time in her career, this time serving as the director of Space Camp and the Space Academy. During this time she had two children and obtained a M.B.A. from the University of Maryland College Park.

In 1990 Barnhart left the Space Center for the third time to pursue work in the private sector. That same year she received a doctorate degree in education from Vanderbilt University. After leaving the space center, she became vice president of Hamilton Sundstrand Space, Sea Systems International, and Honeywell Space and Defense, and reached a lifelong goal: working with satellites. She also acquired another M.B.A., this one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she was a Sloan Fellow in 1998.

She had retired from her long accomplished career when the Space Center contacted her in 2010, convincing her to return to the center for the fourth time, but this time to the helm of the “ship,” as Executive Director and CEO, a position she has held since January of 2011.

U.S. Space and Deborah Barnhart
[Photo Credit: U.S. Space & Rocket Center Facebook]

The first year she served as CEO, Barnhart reduced the Space Center’s debt by $1 million, and brought attendance up by 13 percent after 10 years of decline. In 2017, the center had it’s all-time record attendance, with an 11 percent increase in revenue.

“In everything that we do, we want to inspire that next generation of explorers,” Barnhart told Hawkins in an interview.

Barnhart has received a lot of honors during her lengthy career. She is a recipient of NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest form of recognition awarded by NASA to a non‐government individual. A member of the Board of Managers of the Air Force Museum Foundation and a Trustee on the Board of the University of Alabama in Huntsville Foundation. She also served as Governor Robert Bentley’s appointee to the Alabama Space Authority Task Force.

In October of 2017 Barnhart was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor alongside Governor Kay Ivey, and two other women, making her part of the first class of all female inductees.

For over 20 years of service to our Nation through the Navy, her service to the state of Alabama through the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and for setting the level of excellence the nation has come to expect from Alabama Women, Dr. Deborah Barnhart is absolutely and Alabama woman of Influence.