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Trump chooses former ambassador and space enthusiast to run Air Force

President Donald Trump addresses members of the media at the White House on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is nominating Barbara Barrett, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland and onetime Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, to serve as the next secretary of the U.S. Air Force, tapping a longtime space enthusiast to run the service set to oversee the new Space Force.

Trump made the announcement on Twitter on Tuesday, starting the clock on a confirmation process that will require Barrett to be approved by the U.S. Senate.

"I am pleased to announce my nomination of Barbara Barrett of Arizona, and former Chairman of the Aerospace Corporation, to be the next Secretary of the Air Force," Trump wrote. "She will be an outstanding Secretary! #FlyFightWin."

If confirmed, Barrett, 68, would be the third woman in a row to serve in the top civilian position at the Air Force and would bring significant experience from the space world at a time when the Pentagon is sharpening the service's focus on space to compete with Russia and China.

She would also join acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan in attempting to win congressional support for plans to establish a separate Space Force underneath the Air Force, one of Trump's top priorities for the service. She would replace Heather Wilson, a retired Air Force officer and former Republican congresswoman, who is leaving the Pentagon to become president of the University of Texas, El Paso. Wilson submitted her resignation in March.

Barrett - a wealthy Republican donor and wife of former Intel CEO Craig Barrett - served as chairman of the Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit corporation based in California that operates a federally funded research and development center for the space enterprise. She also served on the board of the National Air and Space Museum, the Rand Corp., Sally Ride Science and the Space Foundation, according to a biography released by the Smithsonian when she joined its board of regents in 2013.

She is a certified astronaut, having spent time at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to become the backup crew member for Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberte when he traveled to the International Space Station as a space tourist. Barrett didn't end up going to space, because Laliberte was able to travel.

The Washington Post was unable to reach Barrett for comment on her nomination. A spokeswoman for the Aerospace Corporation didn't respond to a request for comment.

Apart from her interest in space, Barrett has had a career spanning business, politics, education and diplomacy. She served as the U.S. ambassador to Finland under President George W. Bush and as deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. According to her State Department biography, she was chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and senior adviser to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

In 1994, Barrett ran unsuccessfully in a Republican primary against Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, eliciting the ire of the late John McCain for challenging the incumbent governor.

In a 2014 interview with the publication Business Jet Traveler, Barrett said she trained and qualified to fly an F-18 Hornet and landed the fighter jet on the USS Nimitz. Around that time, she served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, advising the Pentagon on servicewomen in the U.S. armed forces.

A law school graduate, she cited retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who led the Arizona Senate while Barrett interned there, as one of her inspirations.

"In my generation, girls had three choices: teacher, secretary or nurse," Barrett told the publication. "When I was 4, I said I wanted to be a nurse and my dad said, 'Why not a doctor?' That was my breakaway moment, and since then, I've always asked myself, 'Why not this or this?' "

Barrett and her husband are the owners of Triple Creek Ranch, a luxury resort in Montana.

This article was written by Paul Sonne, a reporter for The Washington Post.