Rachel Barry Spreads the word About Science on the International Space Station

Rachel inside a mockup of the International Space Station

Rachel Barry's parents taught her to "be flexible and be open." From teaching HTML to high school students, to parlaying her love of crafting into a blog then magazine work, Rachel says that, "Curiosity and communication are basically the things that rule my life." Today, she uses those skills to let people know about all the awesome scientific work being done on the International Space Station, and how it'll help us get to Mars and make life better here on Earth.

Rachel at 9 or 10 dressed as Amelia Earhart for a school project


Where she’s from: West Texas
Grew up with: mom and dad
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M
Where she lives now: Houston, Texas
Growing up she wanted to be: a journalist
Now she’s: Communications Editor for the International Space Station Science Office

Tell us about yourself growing up!

I was a lot like I am now: very curious and interested in the world around me, pretty outgoing, and goofy. I’m fascinated by the way the world works, and the way people are. I’ve always had an interest in knowing about the world around me. I’ve always been fascinated by science, and history, and cultures. I went to space camp when I was 12. I wanted to be a paleontologist; I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be all of these different things, which I think is why journalism ended up suiting me really well, because as a journalist you can go out and share stories of all kinds of people and experiences.

My parents always instilled in me to be flexible and open to learning new things, particularly in journalism and communication. My father is a journalist, and he was always really big on the storytelling and the sharing, and to always be open and flexible to whatever’s coming next. Even though my degree was in journalism, I was also very computer savvy. My dad brought home one of the first Macintosh computers back in 1984. I have been on a computer since I was nine or 10.

I taught Web design. There weren’t any textbooks. It was make it up as you go. I bought myself a book, “Teach Yourself HTML in 24 Hours,” and taught myself how to do it, and said, “Yes, I can do that job.” 

What did you do when you first got out of college at Texas A&M?

I loved my high school journalism teacher, and I saw great value in scholastic journalism and teaching students the skills of journalism. Critical thinking, communications, researching, all those kinds of things are great skills to have no matter what field you go into. I realized when I graduated from college that I could go work at a copy desk at a newspaper, and that there wasn’t going to be a great quality of life. I decided to teach. I went back to start working on my teaching certification, and then I got hired on an emergency permit to teach.

I was looking to teach journalism, and the high school that I graduated from needed a Web design teacher. I taught multimedia and Web design. I was the high school newspaper advisor, and I taught journalism classes. This was the first year that they had Web design in Texas schools. There weren’t any textbooks. It was make it up as you go.

I bought myself a book, “Teach Yourself HTML in 24 Hours,” and taught myself how to do it, and said, “Yes, I can do that job.” I taught myself HTML, I taught myself Photoshop, I taught myself Dreamweaver, and had a lot of fun doing all of that. That’s been a common thing in my career of always being open to whatever’s coming next and not being afraid to just say, “Oh yeah, sure, I can do that,” and then figure out how to do it. And that was a lot of fun to learn and then to share that with high school kids was a lot of fun too. I really enjoyed those years of teaching. I love teaching in general.

What came next? 

I taught for three years before I had my daughter. When I had my daughter I decided to stay home. I did freelance Web design from home so I could work from home, then got into crafting, and blogging. I taught extension courses in Web design to small business folks. I also taught hand embroidery classes, and would do commissioned pieces and kept writing. There were a lot of different turns but they all had that underlying theme of, it’s all about learning, sharing stories, building communities.

Especially as a mom who was working part-time from home with two small kids, I needed that mental challenge and purposeful activity that gave me a visual result.

Rachel made this embroidery of the moon's surface. Chatting with a NASA employee at a Maker Fair, she learned about a contest NASA and Etsy were organizing for space-themed crafts. She won in the 2-D design category, and a picture of her work went up on the space shuttle! 

How did you get into crafting?

My mom had sewn my clothes when I was a kid, and she liked hand embroidery, but I never really got into it. When I was pregnant with my son, she gave me a sewing machine as a Christmas present. Then I took a sewing class, and I really, really liked it.

I started sewing a ton and took a ton of classes. Then I took a hand embroidery class and fell madly in love with that. I like things that challenge me to learn something new. I like doing things with my hands, making something and seeing a result.

Because I’m a writer by nature, I started blogging. I’m really into communities and building relationships with people. Being at home with kids I found this really vibrant online community and this hobby that was really fun and enjoyable. There was great community around sharing your project, sharing your fun things that you did online and getting feedback from folks, and offering feedback to other people.

Especially as a mom who was working part-time from home with two small kids, I needed that. I needed that mental challenge and purposeful activity that gave me a visual result. I found it very satisfying, and relaxing, and fun, and met a lot of really wonderful people through that process.

[Blogging] evolved into a job with Craft magazine and writing for their print publication and then their online publication. Their sibling publication is Make magazine, which is DIY, tech, engineering, geekery stuff. Because I had a geeky side to me, I started doing writing for them as well, specifically related to space. That’s what ended up leading me to where I am now.

How did you come to work for NASA?

There was group on Twitter called the Space Tweeps. It was this community of folks super-excited about space. Some people worked at NASA, some people were just space enthusiasts. Somebody in the Space Tweeps posted, “Get your media credentials for a shuttle launch.” I could realize a childhood dream and share an incredible story; sign me up. I pitched my editors to cover STS-130, which was the mission that installed the Cupola on the Space Station. I interviewed the astronauts in the crew before the launch and then went down and actually reported from the launch. I also went to my first Tweet Up at Johnson Space Center and did a series of stories for makezine.com. [Note: Tweet Ups were the precursor to NASA Social]

I was covering these things before even working here. With the great evolution of communications at NASA, I was finally like, “Wait a minute, I actually could have a place there. I could help share these stories.” I knew NASA had Public Affairs, which is more like Public Relations. NASA doesn’t do marketing, but it skews a little bit differently than journalism and traditional storytelling. When I saw that shift in how they were telling stories, how they were building communities around this, I was like, “Oh yeah, that is 100 percent what I want to be in on.”

I’m trying to find the best ways to share our Space Station science stories with the world.

Rachel with astronauts Kate Rubins and Tak Onishi. She says, "They were a great pair for science storytelling aboard the space station. They captured some of the best (and most!) science imagery we’ve had in a long time. It was a pleasure to get to share their stories, and talk with them about their mission when they returned.

What do you do for NASA?

I do communication strategy for our contracts team within the Program Science Office at the Johnson Space Center. I’m a contractor, not a civil servant. I work with my NASA counterparts in the Program Science Office to identify science topics to cover, to share stories about. Basically I’m trying to find the best ways to share our Space Station science stories with the world.

We come up with our best practices for sharing, when we’re going to share stuff, how we’re going to share it. It’s everything from editing stories, writing stories, getting stories sent out to people through e-mail list serves, and social media. I do a lot of interacting with other offices. For instance, I work a lot with the Public Affairs office to coordinate and for me to be able to feed some science content to them.

I do a lot of coordination with other NASA centers, to see what stories they’re working on related to Space Station research. We try to identify our audiences and the best way to reach them. I do a lot for awareness. We get daily reports of what science was conducted on the Space Station, and I’m constantly reading those to know like what we’re doing. I have another colleague who tells us what science is coming up, so I’ll look at her chart so that I can plan out some social media posts.

I handle our social media. I’ve started doing video for us as well. I also do a lot of imagery work. We have tons of pictures that come down from the Space Station every day, and we have a large imagery database. I go through those pictures to help identify the science-related pictures and find pictures for us to use in all of our stories and social media. One of my favorite things to do is to sit there and look through every picture that’s coming down from the Space Station. That’s a fun thing to get to do. 

Who are you trying to reach with your communications?

I tend to be focused on general public communications. I’m thinking of my friends at a cocktail party: what are they going to want to know about and how are they going to consume that information? You’re standing in line at Starbucks watching a video on your phone, no sound, 30 seconds. Is it cool, can I share it with my friends?

We also work to reach researchers; because we want researchers to know what great capability we have in the Space Station as a microgravity laboratory. We will do outreach to let them know not only what’s available for them on Space Station, but also to let them know if they’re doing science on Space Station, what we can do for them in terms of sharing their science stories. I can say, “We can help share your story through social media, through feature stories, through education outreach, and here’s how we do it.”

Based on our expertise of what communication styles and vehicles work best for those different audiences, we identify, what do we want at the end of this? When people finish watching this or seeing this campaign, what do we want them to have gotten out of it? What do we want them to share with people? We tailor our work to match those goals. That’s just good old communication strategy.

What are some of the scientific activities that happen on the Space Station?

There’s so much. We have hundreds of experiments going on at any given time, across the disciplines, physical science, biological science. We have facilities for human research, for combustion research, for fluid research, for robotics. It’s a quite extraordinary laboratory. The two big areas that Space Station research focuses on are either research that’s going to benefit us back here on earth in some way or research that’s getting us further out into the solar system. Oftentimes the stuff that is helping us get further also ends up having earth benefits. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other.

Rachel in a Manned Maneuvering Unit cutout as a kid. She was so fascinated by them, her license plate now reads "MY MMU."

What keeps you excited about your work, and what keeps you interested in it?

From childhood I’ve been fascinated with human space flight and space exploration. I always will have that geek-out moment when I have to show my badge to get in, and when I walk in and I know that I’m seeing space walks on TV and the people who are controlling that are in the next building over. As a person who is endlessly curious, my curiosity is always satiated.

Every single day I am learning something new. I hear people talking about the science they’re doing, or I’m reading about it or learning about it, and my mind is just blown. I’m not a scientist, so as I’ve started learning all these different things that we’re doing it’s almost unreal to me. I come to work and I’m truly around amazing people who are doing incredible work that has incredible benefits for humanity both in our daily lives on earth, and for exploration, and for our future. And that is immensely rewarding. I genuinely consider it a great privilege to be able to do what I do and to work where I work.

I have this mantra that I always say when things are getting rough, and it’s: “Every job has BS; not every job has a Space Station.” I could be working anywhere writing stories, writing tweets, making videos, looking at pictures, and instead I’m at NASA. I’m writing stories about heart cells growing in microgravity. I’m making videos about setting fires in space. It’s the coolest job ever. At NASA, I do think that people have this feeling that they’re working on something bigger than themselves and something that’s actually contributing to the advancement of humankind. And so it’s hard to overstate how much that can help you in a job.

What fills your time outside of work?

I have two kids, so they keep me busy. They’re 12 and 16. I’m just a real big nerd, and I do really geeky things like read comic books and build Lego stuff. I like to hang out with friends and go around Houston and go to museums. I like to do stuff that’s going to be fun and mentally engaging, and challenge me a little bit.

Always go toward work that interests you. The career that I have right now didn’t exist when I was in college. Stay open-minded; stay interested

Rachel at Space Camp as a kid, trying out the 1/6 Chair. Rachel says, "The chair simulates the 1/6 gravity of the moon, so you bounce like you would when walking on the moon!

What advice would you give someone who has wide-ranging interests and wants to incorporate them into their professional life?

Always go toward work that interests you. The career that I have right now didn’t exist when I was in college. Stay open-minded; stay interested, more than anything. Don’t let yourself become apathetic. Work hard, be nice to people, do that. Stay interested, stay nice, stay working really hard, and paths open up to you. Find people who are in jobs that you are interested in and talk with them. Ask them how they got there, or share ideas with people.

Be open, and don’t think that you have to get into one rut and stay with it. Be flexible, and have fun. No job is going to be perfect, and total fun, and super-awesome, and pay you a ton of money. That’s almost never going to happen. But as long as you can find some personal connection and some kind of personal fulfillment, even at small levels, go for that.

Don’t be afraid to jump at every opportunity, even if you’re not so sure if you can do it. Don’t be afraid to say, “Yeah, I can totally do that,” and then go figure out how to do it. That has been half of my career. You always have to be open to learn the next thing. You can’t think that what you’re doing right now is what’s going to still be around in 20 years. Things have even changed in communication since I started at NASA. We’re doing stuff that we weren’t even doing a year ago.

Never stop showing yourself as someone who’s willing to do the new stuff, who’s willing to jump in and give it a go. A lot of people will just sit back and say, “Oh, well no, we’ve always done these, you know, this certain way,” or whatever. But you just have to be able to be like, “Oh, let’s just try this and see what happens,” and be okay with making some mistakes. Always be learning and expanding.

What is a common thread through everything you’ve done?

The core of who I am is a communicator. It’s either communicating and telling stories about people’s lives and experiences, or it’s communicating how to do things. Curiosity and communication are basically the things that rule my life.

Maybe it’s even better than I could have imagined when I was a kid, because I’m realizing now, as an adult that I can have a job, be an adult, but still have fun and still be my geeky self with my toys.

How does your life now compare to what you imagined adult life now might be like when you were in high school?

I don’t know that I ever had specific visions of what day-to-day life would be like. I always wanted to enjoy my life, and feel happy, and feel like I was learning, and connecting people.

There have been lots of hard times where I didn’t know what the heck I was doing, where I felt uncertain as a mother, where I felt uncertain as a writer, whatever. But if I always kept somewhere in the bottom of my gut staying true to myself, then that helped get me to where I am now. Maybe it’s even better than I could have imagined when I was a kid, because I’m realizing now, as an adult that I can have a job, be an adult, but still have fun and still be my geeky self with my toys. I feel like I have the best of both worlds, of that super-fun exciting, energetic childhood, but then also this mature professional.

When you get to those places throughout your career that feel just right, enjoy them and be very grateful for them. Where I am right in this moment, I feel really, really awesome, and I’m thankful for all the experiences that I’ve had, good and bad, that got me here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Check out books Rachel loves!