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DARBY - To say that Barbara Barrett has lived a fascinating life would be an understatement.

There aren't many people on Earth who are trained for space flight, and Barrett is one of them.

But first, a little background.

Barrett lives with her husband Craig south of Darby, where they own and operate Triple Creek Ranch, a luxury resort that was recently ranked as the No. 2 overall hotel in the world by Travel and Leisure Magazine. The No. 1 hotel in the world is located in India and boasts a wildlife preserve nearby.

"We have great wildlife here too, but it's a little hard to compete with tigers," Barrett said with a grin. "But we were absolutely thrilled."

Barrett, president and CEO of the resort, is active in the day-to-day operations. She wines and dines guests from all over the world when she isn't exploring the drainages of the Bitterroot Mountains on horseback. She can pull out a topographic map of the area and point out dozens of long loops she has made in the secluded canyons.

Last year, however, Barrett was a long way from the quiet alpine lakes of southwestern Montana.

From the beginning of May to early October of 2009, Barrett trained in Russia as an astronaut to be the backup participant for the Soyuz TMA-16 flight to the International Space Station. The flight was through a company called Space Adventures, a space tourism corporation.

How she ended up in that position still elicits a chuckle from Barrett.

"It wasn't my idea at all," she explained. "Through an unexpected series of circumstances, the Russians had somebody drop out and they offered the spot to me."

At first, Barrett declined.

"I told them I didn't have the money, but that I would help out if they needed it," she said. "Quite unexpectedly, they came back and said they needed somebody right now."

The company needed someone to train as a backup to the primary astronaut (Guy Laliberte, the founder of Cirque du Soleil). In case anything happened and Laliberte was unable to make the flight, someone had to be ready to fill the spot.

Flights to the International Space Station don't just get canceled when somebody comes down with the flu.

The company was persistent. They were on a short time-frame, and they were familiar with Barrett because she was a trained pilot and she had worked with them on zero gravity flights in the past. She also knew of the company from working with Steve Forbes.

 

Now would be a good time for a little more background.

The previous year, Barrett served as the U.S. Ambassador to Finland, and the head of the space tourism company had visited.

Barrett has an extensive business background. She has served as the senior adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and she was the CEO of the New York-based American Management Association. She has taught leadership at Harvard University, served as deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and was president of the International Women's Forum, among many other endeavors.

Her husband is the retired chairman and CEO of Intel Corp. At any other time in her life, she said, she would have been far too busy to undergo a space flight training program. However, last year, she happened to have an opening in her hectic schedule because her term as ambassador ended when President Barack Obama took office.

"The company came back and asked if I would be willing to train, which of course I was delighted to do," Barrett said. "It seemed to me the chance of a lifetime. It's not a set of circumstances that would occur ever again, I don't think, and I felt very fortunate."

Barrett flew to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, also called Star City, just outside Moscow. And for seven months, she spent 12-14 hours a day either in a classroom or undergoing rigorous physical fitness tests.

"The whole process was very intense," Barrett said. "We were in isolation the whole time. It was just the two of us in class. There was a lot of classroom work to learn the theory of space flight."

Barrett and Laliberte had to learn everything there was to know about the propulsion, communication and life-support systems, among other things.

"Because if something happens up there, we have to be able to know how to operate everything and understand how everything works," Barrett explained.

The duo learned the stages of the space flight and how much G-force they would be pulling at certain times. They studied the entire ascent, descent and docking process, and went over various rescue operations.

"We did many exercises going through the whole launch sequence," Barrett said. "That was very interesting. We were sitting in a Soyuz mock-up and going through a lot of the things that would happen. We had to train with a tilt table, a centrifuge and go over helicopter rescue."

In the centrifuge, Barrett said she was exposed to eight G's. That is the equivalent to eight times the normal gravitational force exerted by the Earth on a normal human being at sea level.

"That was OK by me," she said nonchalantly. "I had been in some high-performance aircraft before."

 

The entire time, Barrett had to mentally prepare herself for the possibility that she would fly to space.

"Absolutely, I had to train knowing that I could go," she said. "From the time I signed up, it was entirely as the backup. But I always had to be ready to go."

Barrett said that her role in the mission was a delicate balancing act.

"I needed to be preparing as though I could go, but not get my hopes up," she said. The job of the No. 2 astronaut is to make the No. 1 go."

In the end, it was Laliberte who ended up flying into space. He now often refers to himself as "the first clown in space." Barrett said she watched the whole flight from Mission Control in Moscow.

"The right thing to happen was for him to go," she said. "I had the extraordinary privilege of going through training. It was really great. The biggest takeaway was I learned an even greater respect for the professional men and women who spend their career in the pursuit of spaceflight. I met many of America's wonderful astronauts, as well as a few Russian and Japanese. It was really a highlight."

Despite all her adventures abroad, Barrett said she is happy to be back in Montana. Her father was a Western rancher and cowboy, and she grew up riding horses and working with cattle. She feels like she is finally back to her roots.

"I am so glad to be back in the Bitterroot," she said. "I missed two whole summers, and it is so beautiful here."

Even now, as Barrett enjoys all that a Montana summer and fall bring, she still reflects on her experience in disbelief.

"I never dreamed I would do anything like that," she said. "It was beyond the realm of possibility. It was pretty far-fetched what I did, and it really was a privilege."

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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