Florida Poly Student Makes Strides For Women In Space Exploration

Feb 27, 2018

As a child, Payton Barnwell was fascinated by race cars, but her passion for science came to her in high school with the support of her high school physics teacher.

“He really showed us the applications of the science we were learning,” Barnwell said. “So it wasn’t all theory. He would say, ‘We can do it with this, and we can do it with rockets.’”

Now, the Florida Polytechnic University mechanical engineering junior has been selected for one of the most prestigious aviation and space programs in the country, one specifically designed for women.

Barnwell, from Tampa, is one of 41 women selected for the class of 2018’s Brooke Owens Fellowship Program. This program was founded in 2016 in honor of space industry pioneer and pilot D. Brooke Owens, who died at 35 from cancer.

With the program, women are making a name for themselves in the male-dominated field of space exploration. According to Barnwell, being able to work and learn under such prominent figure is an inspiration to continue her growth in the field.

“The namesake of (the program) is Dawn Brooke Owens. She was an absolutely incredible person that I truly wish I would have been able to meet,” Barnwell said. “Being considered in that same general area is actually a really big confidence boost that maybe I am doing something right. This is a really big reassurance that I’m doing something that might make a difference.”

The program awards internships and senior mentorships to undergraduate women seeking careers in aviation or space exploration. Fellows were selected from major research universities, Ivy League schools, historically black colleges and universities and major international universities.

Barnwell took a creative path with her application. One of the questions she answered was what she would do with a grant for one million dollars to be used on any aerospace project.

“I thought it would be really neat to bring back that idea to something I would have liked to have in high school, and use it to start a fake high school for girls interested in space,” Barnwell said. “I made a website online. It was pretty cool because I made a fake logo, I had fake board leaders for the school, curriculum and labs that I would like to see.”

Each Fellow has been placed into a paid summer internship at a leading aviation or space company.

Barnwell will be working for Generation Orbit during the 12-week summer program. The Atlanta-based aviation company builds launch systems designed to lower costs, improve responsiveness and increase overall flexibility of space missions.

According to Barnwell, Generation Orbit only has 11 team members. She hopes that the small group will allow her to get a better look at multiple projects.

“I was speaking with a Brooke Owens Fellow who worked there last year, and she said it’s pretty interesting working in such a small company because you really do get to see what everyone is doing,” Barnwell said. “Whether you’re doing mechanical work and someone else is doing electrical, you can peak over and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Can I learn about this?’”

Each Fellow will also be paired with a senior aerospace professional as a mentor. The pool of mentors includes the most recent NASA Administrator and the two most recent Deputy Administrators, NASA's former Chief Scientist, several CEOs and commercial, international and U.S. astronauts.

Within the next month, Barnwell will find out who her mentor is, and her program will begin in May.

Barnwell is scheduled to graduate from Florida Polytechnic in 2019. After that, she wants to continue aiming for the stars.

“My main goal is to somehow work on some component of space habitation - whether it’s for Mars or the moon,” Barnwell said. “I’d really like to be an integral part of the team that is working on the life-support system or the technology inside to help grow the plants that will feed the astronauts.”

For now, Barnwell is getting excited about the possibilities her fellowship provides, even as some of her Polytechnic classmates try to keep her grounded. 

“My friends here are just like, ‘Slow down, stop doing so much,’” Barnwell said. “But I found 40 other girls who do the same. I think we’ll be able to really group together and find a big project that we can do to get the word out there about the space industry and show that it really is accessible to anybody.”