Carnegie Mellon University

Barbara Barrett Air Force Secretary Carnegie Mellon

December 08, 2020

Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett describes the launch of Space Force in a visit with the CMU community

By Bill Brink

When Barbara Barrett was 20, she got an internship at the Arizona state legislature. Her father passed away in 1963, and while she attended Arizona State University, Barrett worked to support her mother and five siblings. While interning for state Senator Sandra Day O’Connor, who later became the first woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice, one of Barrett’s tasks was to write the bill that created Arizona’s Department of Transportation.

More than four decades later, Barrett, now the Secretary of the Air Force, is again involved in the construction of a new venture. She is in charge of the development of the U.S. Space Force, the year-old branch of the armed forces created to protect America’s space infrastructure and further the development of new technology to outpace America’s adversaries.

“We don’t have a template for something like this, but we do have the best minds and the best capabilities working on it,” she said Friday during a virtual event with the Carnegie Mellon University community.

Interested in space? Check out Professor Forrest Morgan's course, "Space and National Security!

After a winding career with many stops that took her in and out of government service, Barrett is one of those minds. She served as an attorney in Arizona before becoming the Vice Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1982. She later became the Deputy Administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, a Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and the U.S. Ambassador to Finland. 

She is an instrument-rated pilot and a trained astronaut. She also remembers a time when women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft. As a civilian advisor to the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, she helped get the rule changed, and became the first civilian woman to land in an FA-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier. (Finland’s air force flies American-made FA-18s; she battled their chief of staff in a dogfight while she was ambassador.) Given the opportunity to start something from scratch, Barrett plans to include greater acceptance of women and minorities from the beginning.

“We cannot exclude talent and capability from our workforce for any silly reasons like packaging, the color of our skin or the gender that we are,” she said.

She now leads a military branch whose vehicles travel 17,000 miles per hour, thousands of miles above the earth, but not everything is quite that snazzy. One of the tasks facing Barrett and Space Force was updating its acquisition systems, the way it purchases material. But those aspects are crucial: Without an updated acquisition system to streamline the process, hardware will be obsolete by the time Space Force gets its hands on it.

Barrett illustrated the importance of up-to-date hardware. After the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, in January, Iran retaliated by launching missiles at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq. A Space Force officer in Colorado identified the launch and calculated the intended target in time to warn the troops. No lives were lost.

Space is more than a military endeavor. It touches our everyday lives, every time we plug an address into Google Maps or check our weather app. The satellites that make this possible were not designed with defensive capabilities in mind – at 17,000 miles per hour, a piece of metal the size of a coin can destroy one – but other countries’ recent demonstrations of the ability to take one out means defense is now a priority.

“Satellites are past design life, and replacements are essential,” Barrett said. “As my predecessor, Heather Wilson, said, ‘We built a glass house before we knew about stones.’ Now we know that there are aggressors in space, and we aren’t well-protected from that.”

Some seventy countries have a presence in space, Barrett said, and the ubiquity of space operations should lead to the creation of international protocol and doctrine. She wants space to be open for benevolent use, not allocated or claimed. Further exploration of what is possible beyond our atmosphere will also help us understand the world inside it. 

“We are discovering things that have been mysteries to mankind from our origins,” she said. “Now, during our lifetimes, we are discovering things that are unlocking some of those mysteries. Those are mysteries both our own planet and in the great cosmos.”