Dr. Richard Barry

Dr. Richard Barry

Observatory Project Scientist

Dr. Richard Barry started his career working in a salt factory, heaving 100-pound bags of salt from a conveyor belt to a pallet. He’d struggled badly in high school, failing his math classes, overwhelmed and choosing the easiest classes he could take ― then sliding even in those.

“I was ready to throw in the towel,” he said. “I really felt that the salt factory was my future. I’d seen worse things. Those guys drive nice trucks. I could at least make a decent life for myself.”

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. He recalled spending hour after hour on classwork deep into the night, far past the time when most would have given up. “I simply had a very difficult time learning, absorbing things,” he said. “My method of trying to learn was to just work harder.” In high school, it wasn’t enough.

What Rich wouldn’t realize for another 30-plus years was that he had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). He’d been held back in second grade when his teachers suspected a problem, but that was where the intervention stopped. “You were hyperactive or stupid, those were your two choices back then. They thought I was stupid. I thought I was stupid.”

Today Rich is the Hubble Space Telescope observatory project scientist, specializing in the operations of the spacecraft, its instruments and their interfaces. But if things had gone a little differently, he might still be at the factory, he reflected. If the job hadn’t been automated soon after he started, he might never have left. If he’d gone into debt to buy the Jeep he’d been eyeing, he might have tried to find another job there. “You look back in time at all these critical junctures where you can make this or that decision, and they seem so insignificant at the time.” Instead, when a robot took over his job, Rich joined the Air Force.

In the Air Force, his self-confidence began to flicker back to life. Air Force testing showed he had a latent talent for electronics. Allowed to select his path, he became a technician for a new aircraft, the F-16 ― which he chose because he was told it was the most difficult to learn. The Air Force taught him every system of the F-16, from flight control computers and communications systems to weapons delivery and human interfaces. “It developed this sense of seeing myself as a capable person.” When his brother suggested he give math classes another try, he started taking college extension classes at the last level he’d felt comfortable: high school algebra.

His notes, he remembers, were things of art. “Other students would pay me for my notes, they were so beautiful.” If the homework was just 10 problems, he’d ladle extra work on and do every problem in the chapter. “I evolved this method to deal with what I didn’t even know was ADD by doing more math problems than anyone else, so I would never encounter a problem I’d never seen. There was no way a professor could surprise me.”

He worked his way through the math classes, a single class at a time, until he had taken every course that was offered. Doubtful of his success, he asked if the classes had been watered down. “They said, ‘No, this is hard as it gets.’”

While stationed with the Air Force in Okinawa, Japan, Rich went on to take more advanced math classes at the University of Ryukyus and complete an associate’s degree in avionics engineering technology at the Community College of the Air Force, Far East Division.

He also fell in love with scuba diving. “I would go out at night with two little flashlights, and you’re down 70 feet and surrounded by beautiful marine life. There was a sense of danger I really loved. It’s dark — certain sharks and more dangerous creatures only come out at night. There’s a feeling almost like you’re in space, really separated from your normal environment.” At night, he would spend time gazing at the stars, reminded of the dark skies where he’d grown up in St. Clair, Michigan. “I was confronted with the stars every night. For me they were very much a part of my life, and I could identify quite a number of them.” He began to entertain an idea, nurtured by his newfound success: maybe he could be an astronaut.

After leaving the Air Force, Rich went to the University of Washington to obtain a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He applied to NASA and accepted an offer as a Space Shuttle engineer at Kennedy Space Center, his resume burnished by the fact that the spacecraft shared design features with the F-16.

He moved to Goddard Space Flight Center in 1991 to work on the X-ray Timing Explorer as the lead power systems engineer, and simultaneously completed a master’s degree in electrical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. Pursuing his love of space science and to enhance his credentials for the astronaut program, he began to consider an astronomy degree. In preparation, he pulled out his old math textbooks and began to go through them again, one at a time. He would eventually earn a masters in physics from Johns Hopkins.

While working as an instrument design engineer on a mission called the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, Rich decided, just for fun, to calculate the pressure that would be exerted on the spacecraft by photons from the Sun. He realized that if the solar arrays were even slightly off kilter from one another, the spacecraft would spin up and burn through its propellant before the mission’s end. He brought his calculations to the lead scientist, who told him that he was correct and that he should cultivate his talent and career by getting a doctorate.

So Rich went back to school again, taking refresher classes as well as classes for a doctorate in physics and astronomy. In class, he would sit in the front of the room and record the lecture while taking notes on a book with a line drawn down the center of the page. Later, he would replay the entire class and fill in the notes again on the blank side of the page. The degree took 10 years ― two solid years of preparation and eight working on the degree, mostly while working full-time.

“Just looking back, it’s like, there’s no way I could have done this,” he said. “I did manage to battle through it in spite of having a serious learning disability. The bad news is that I had to develop such corrective approaches to make up for it that it made many of my experiences pretty bad. Other people could study for a few hours and be OK. I had to do easily three times as much studying to make it happen.”

He wrote his thesis, the work that was supposed to launch his career as an astronomer, on a way of learning about planets around other stars called long baseline stellar interferometry, only to find out shortly after achieving his doctorate that NASA would no longer be focusing on it. In 2012, he had to start over again, this time to change his speciality to gravitational microlensing ― using the warping of space-time to detect new planets.

Six years after finishing his doctorate, he was diagnosed with severe ADD, which he now treats with medication. Shifts in diagnosis and treatment of ADD in the years since he was in high school have meant a new world for people with similar conditions, he said. “People learn differently. I learned quite differently than other students ― while battling through five degrees. The modern science that allows us to understand these things has really radically overhauled our approach to learning.”

Rich is an advocate for diversity, leading Goddard’s People with Disabilities Advisory Committee for four years and chairing the Science Director’s Diversity Committee in 2015. Inspired by his own struggles, he volunteered for the committee years before realizing he had ADD.

“I’m able to understand that people come from different circumstances. I took this crazy route and now I really see there are so many different ways you can approach this. I see it as my duty as a civil servant to reach out to underrepresented groups and make them understand that they’re a part of this, too.”

The hoped-for career as an astronaut didn’t pan out, though he applied twice, but as an astronomer Rich explores space through cosmic discoveries, working on artificial intelligence and gravitational microlensing. “I’m very keen on the science I’m doing.”

Years of combating ADD leaves him still feeling like an imposter sometimes, he said. But he’s learned to identify and counter that feeling. “Being able to assert that with myself was like turning a corner. You’re not picking this stuff up as quickly as others, but in the end you’re going to beat it. And now I’ve learned to be a lot more gentle and accepting of myself.”

“I’m often really surprised when I think through something very technically difficult ― holy smokes I just figured that out?” he said. “I’m astonished I could do that because my brain just works so much better now. Sometimes I have so many ideas that I don’t know what to do with them all.”