by Amy Keller
Director of Exploration Research and Technology Programs, Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island
Just a two-hour drive from where Barbara Brown grew up, the Space Coast seemed light-years away from the small, rural city of Palatka. But Brown could feel its gravitational pull. “I can remember telling my mother when I was 7 or 8 that NASA needed me,” Brown recalls. Her mother chuckled and said, “NASA needs you, Barbara?” But Brown was insistent that the space agency indeed needed her to help solve hard problems. “She told me she didn’t know how to help make it happen, but I should focus on getting good grades and pray about it, and God would do the rest,” Brown says.
Brown got good grades, earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Florida State University, and in the mid-1980s landed a job at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. As a student trainee in the digital electrical engineering division, she was responsible for designing the initial user interface for NASA’s Configuration Management Data System, a database used for the shuttle program. “It was the computer system that kept track of the parts that were used for the space shuttle,” she says — and she quickly proved her penchant for problem-solving, fixing an error that was corrupting the database.
Software glitches weren’t the only hurdle she confronted early in her career. “I believe I was the fifth or sixth Black woman to work for NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in an engineering role at that time. There were constantly people who put challenges and roadblocks in my way, but there were people who were constantly helping me succeed,” she says.
When her supervisor wasn’t keeping her busy enough, Brown asked if she could seek out work from other supervisors. And when naysayers handed her seemingly impossible tasks to show her she wasn’t qualified, she says she didn’t let it rattle her confidence. She simply did her research, sought out people who had experience in that area and figured how to tackle the problems, she says. Soon, managers were seeking Brown’s help on some of their most vexing challenges.
She credits her parents with preparing her to face down obstacles. “Both of my parents experienced a much worse environment than I have experienced, but they didn’t let it stop them, and they prepared me and my siblings with a constant litany: ‘Life can be hard. Some people are going to treat you unfairly and put obstacles in your way that will make you have to work harder, but the good news is you can do it, and you’re not going to let them stop you,’ ” she says. “It was a preparation for battle, and I’ll always be grateful for the example they set and the will to succeed they instilled in me.”
Over the course of her NASA career, Brown has served in many roles, from engineer to scientist to manager to chief technologist. Today, she is part of the Kennedy Space Center executive team, serving as director of Exploration Research and Technology Programs.
She has worked on numerous projects during those 30-plus years — including establishing the test flight program for an experimental, hypersonic research aircraft known as the X-34 and leading a team in developing a prototype of an autonomous system for fueling rockets prior to launches. Her work on the X-34 made her the first woman of color to oversee a NASA test flight program and earned her an invitation to the White House. She left that job before any test flights were made, however, to take an assignment at NASA headquarters working in the Office of the Chief Engineer, which oversees the technical readiness of all NASA programs.
In her current role, Brown oversees the processing, assembly, integration and testing of payloads and experiments bound for the International Space Station. She also serves as Kennedy’s lead for the formulation of concepts to support operations on the moon and Mars that are part of NASA’s planned Artemis missions.
One focus area, she says, involves helping to create sustainable food sources for astronauts. “As I tell people, with any good road trip, the first thing my family thinks about is what are we going to eat on the way and what are we going to eat when we get there?” she says. “That’s one of the roles that we’re expected to play in understanding the science of crops — how to grow them, how to make them viable, how to make sure they can survive in the harsh environments of space.” Her team is also looking at ways to excavate and construct structures on the surface of the moon and Mars. “There’s a term called ‘in-situ resource utilization’ and that’s really important to us. We get to play in that arena,” Brown says.
While Artemis’ crewed missions are still at least a year and half away, Brown is brimming with excitement. “Seeing the vehicle roll out and take its place on the launch pad, the science that’s going to be conducted, the launch itself, and knowing that it’s all leading to our return to the moon — and it’s a steppingstone to our exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, our journey to Mars one day. Add to that the fact that the first woman and the first person of color will be making history when we return to the moon, well, what’s not to be excited about?” she says.