Dunbar, Bonnie J. (b. 1949)

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 6/27/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9865
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Bonnie Dunbar, the first woman from Washington state to become an astronaut, rocketed into space five times. Only a handful of other American astronauts have heard the countdown to liftoff from the inside of a spacecraft more often than she has. After her last flight, in 1998, she worked as an administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and then as chief executive officer of the Museum of Flight in Seattle. But she defines herself as first and foremost an engineer, with an abiding interest in the problems that need to be solved if human beings are ever going to be able to explore the farther reaches of space. She loved the view she had of earth, looking down while orbiting 200 miles above the planet, but she was equally inspired by looking the other way, straight ahead, toward the stars, into infinity and the future. "There's no edge," she says. "We really won’t know what’s out there until we explore, and we need to do that" (Tate interview).

Doing Not Watching

Dunbar resigned as CEO of the Museum of Flight in 2010 to become executive director of Wings Over Washington, a museum affiliate focused on education. She is passionate about what she does and frustrated that the general public -- and Congress -- doesn’t care more about it. She worries that the United States has become complacent; is not making the investments in math, science, and engineering that it needs to; is not demanding enough of its students.

"When we went to the Moon 40 years ago, the whole world watched," she says. "We should be proud that we invested so much into education, technology, and the industries we have today. It has benefited our society and improved our quality of life. We should never underestimate the role that science and technology has had in every major civilization since the dawn of time." The fundamental question, she adds, is this: "Are we a space-faring nation or are we not? If you’re saying no, then let the sun set on our civilization. We'll sit back and be a nation of watchers and not doers" (Legacy Project).

Bonnie Dunbar didn’t get from a speck of a town in Eastern Washington to a window looking down on the world from an orbiting spaceship by being much of a watcher.

Star Girl

Bonnie Jeanne Dunbar was born in Valley Memorial Hospital in Sunnyside, Washington, on March 3, 1949, to Robert C. (1922-1983) and Ethel Dunbar. Both her parents were self-sufficient, inventive, entrepreneurial people who placed a high value on education. She was the first of their four children. They all grew up on an isolated ranch near the hamlet of Outlook (population 1,000 or so), about five miles from Sunnyside (population about 10,000). Her father, a Marine Corps veteran, had bought 40 acres of rocky, sagebrushed, unimproved land in a government raffle opened to veterans after World War II. It was years before they had electricity or running water.

In this environment Dunbar developed tenacity and a strong work ethic. She was driving a tractor by age 9. She "messed around with tools," figuring out how things worked. She and her two younger brothers and sister helped round up cattle, branded steers, milked cows, worked in the fields. Her parents did not treat the girls any differently from the boys. They encouraged all their children to reach for their dreams. They also set high standards, and expected their children to do their best, at whatever they chose to do. "I came out of that environment thinking I could do just as well as anyone else," Dunbar said (The Seattle Times, 2007).

Dunbar began dreaming about space in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made object to be put into Earth's orbit. She was 8 years old. She remembers going outside with her parents and looking up at the star-clotted night sky for traces of the tiny satellite. She began reading science fiction: H. G. Wells, Jules Verne. She watched "Flash Gordon" on TV. There were no special effects then -- you could see the wires holding the little spaceships as they flew through space -- but the show still fired her imagination.

The budding astronaut’s aspirations were reinforced by a visit to Century 21, the 1962 Seattle’s World Fair. "That was the only vacation we ever took when I was a kid," she says. "You know, when you’re raising crops and cattle, it’s pretty much a fulltime job, year round." But that year, the family piled into the Buick and drove first to Canada, to visit friends, and then down to Seattle. The fair’s wonders included the World of Tomorrow, reached via the Bubbleator (an oversized, rounded glass elevator); and the Spacearium, which took visitors on an imaginary 10-minute ride to outer space. Dunbar marveled at the Space Needle, and a moving sidewalk, and the exhibits in U.S. Science Pavilion (today’s Pacific Science Center). "I was very interested in these futuristic things," she says. "I was very excited about it" (Tate interview).

Finding the Key

Dunbar was too shy to tell her principal at the Outlook Elementary School that she wanted to become an astronaut, but she did tell him she wanted to build spaceships. He told her she’d need to study algebra in the ninth grade. To this day she remains grateful for that advice. Algebra is "the magic key," she said in an interview with TVW in 2005. It "led to geometry and that led to trigonometry, math analysis, and calculus, which allowed me to do physics and chemistry, which allowed me to become an engineer." She took all the math and science she could at Sunnyside High School. She made the Honor Society, but she was also a cheerleader, a member of the debate team, active in her local 4-H Club (including entering a steer in the livestock competition every year), and was voted most athletic girl in her class. "I wanted to be everything I could be," she says (Legacy Project).

She graduated in 1967. Her high school yearbook photo shows a pretty girl with a wide, dimpled smile and a bouffant hairdo. That fall, she enrolled in the University of Washington, the first member of her family to go to college. She had thought about the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), home of NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) -- both prestigious engineering schools -- but Caltech did not accept women at that time and MIT cost too much. She credits the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (a reaction to the launch of Sputnik) with providing the scholarships and grant money that allowed her to attend the UW, where she majored in ceramic engineering.

She applied to NASA for the first time right out of high school. She received a polite response explaining the necessary credentials. High on the list was a college degree. Not mentioned was the fact that NASA did not accept applications from women in those days.

No Girls Allowed

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was strictly a boys’ club until the late 1970s. NASA invited only men in the military services to apply when selecting the first group of astronauts, for the Mercury manned flight program in 1959. The agency specified that candidates have experience flying jet aircraft and be no more than five feet, 11 inches tall (because of limited space in the capsules being developed for the space program). The original "Mercury Seven" were all military pilots.

The seven astronauts were chosen from a pool of about 500 applicants after undergoing a rigorous, week-long series of tests developed by Dr. William Randolph "Randy" Lovelace II, head of NASA’s Special Committee on Bioastronautics and founder of the Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Lovelace later invited a group of women pilots to take the same tests. By 1961, 19 women had done so. Thirteen passed. Despite pressure from some of the women and their supporters in Congress, NASA did not admit women into the astronaut training program until 1978. Sally Ride (1951-2012) became the first American woman to go into space in 1983 -- 20 years after the Soviets put cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (b. 1937) into orbit.

Meanwhile, back in Outlook, Dunbar was learning something about gender discrimination at another level, on a summer job sorting asparagus and packing boxes of corn. State law stipulated that women could not lift items weighing more than 40 pounds on the job. Dunbar was accustomed to "bucking 100-pound bales of hay" on the ranch. Nonetheless, the young man working alongside her was paid more than she was because he could legally carry boxes of produce to a conveyor belt and she could not. "That was just the reality of that particular time," she says. "I could be angry and bitter, but I always l learned that those were more self-destructive than productive. So my strategy was just to make as much money as I could and then get a different kind of job" (Tate interview).

She wanted to join the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as a freshman at the UW in 1967 but ROTC did not accept women at that time. Instead, she joined an auxiliary called Angel Flight. This was typical of Dunbar’s approach to barriers: shrug them off. "I just don't see obstacles," she says, matter-of-factly. "I see challenges" (Columns).

She found a comfortable home in the university’s engineering school. What counted there was not gender but whether you could do the work. "You take an exam in statics (the analysis of loads) and you’re either right or wrong," she points out. "So it doesn’t matter what gender you are. If you’ve got the right answer, you’ve got the right answer" (NASA Oral History, p. 14).

"Tenacity and Resolve"

She received encouragement from many of her professors at the UW, including, above all, James I. "Doc" Mueller (1917-1986), chairman of the department of ceramic engineering. When she told him, during her freshman year, that she wanted to become an astronaut, he didn’t try to dissuade her. Instead, he promised to introduce her to NASA engineers if she joined his department. Mueller was the principal investigator on a NASA-funded project to develop the ceramic tiles that protected the space shuttles during re-entry. Dunbar became a part of his research team when she was still an undergraduate. Through that work and later, as an engineer at Rockwell International’s Space Division near Los Angeles, she helped design the thermal protection system on the shuttles that eventually took her into space.

Dunbar’s strong work ethic and sense of purpose kept her focused despite the social upheaval and student protests that roiled many college campuses in the late 1960s, including the UW’s. She took heavy academic loads, often carrying 18 credits or more a quarter. In addition to her involvement with Angel Flight, she served on the Engineering Student Council, played for its baseball team, and pledged a sorority -- all this in addition to working as a waitress at a pastry shop on "the Ave" (University Way). "I remember her tenacity and resolve," said one of her former classmates -- Washington Governor Chris Gregoire (b. 1947). "She knew in her heart that the universe was within reach, and she never let society or anyone else place limitations on her dreams" (Legacy Project).

Dunbar was just finishing up her junior year when she suffered the first, and most searing, loss of her life. Her younger brother Robert, who had followed in their father’s footsteps and joined the Marines, was killed in Vietnam on May 31, 1970. Only 16 months apart in age, she and "Bobby" were very close as children, always doing things together, even looking somewhat alike until he got a growth spurt and surpassed her in height. In the years to come, Dunbar would be rocked by other deaths, including friends and colleagues who died in the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, but "nothing, nothing was ever tougher than losing my brother in Vietnam." She grieved, then went on, more determined than ever, partly out of a need to "live two lives" (Tate interview).

Early Career

Dunbar graduated cum laude in June 1971 with a bachelor of science degree in ceramic engineering. It was not an auspicious time for anyone to be looking for work, especially for a woman in a male-dominated field. Seattle was in the middle of what became known as the "Boeing Bust," when the aerospace giant – the city’s largest employer -- laid off more than half of its workforce.  Dunbar applied at Boeing and at virtually every other company in the area that had anything to do with aviation, just so she could be around airplanes. But "this was before affirmative action," she points out. "It was hard for a woman to even get in the door for an interview." Only 1 percent of the working engineers were female in those days. Finally, out of desperation, she took a job as an office manager for a linen supply company in Seattle. "And for the first time in my life I wondered if my dreams and goals were just farther than I could actually grasp" (Tate interview).

Two months after she went to work for the linen company, Boeing offered her a job in its computer services division. She felt bad about leaving the boss who had given her a job when no one else would, but he wished her well. "Although I think he missed my methodical approach to the job" she says, with a laugh. "Being an engineer, I reorganized everything in the office" (Tate interview).

In 1973, Professor Mueller coaxed her back to school. She demurred at first. She was earning "real money" for the first time in her life. She had a car. She had just bought a new stereo. But he told her that if she was going to do the things she really wanted to do, she needed a master’s degree. She took his advice, becoming the first female graduate student in the UW’s Department of Mining, Metallurgical, and Ceramic Engineering (now Material Science Engineering).

One of the department’s faculty members -- a professor who had been a favorite of hers when she was an undergraduate -- later told her that he had voted against her admission to the graduate program. Shocked, she asked why. He told her he wasn’t certain that she was emotionally strong enough to meet the challenges she would encounter. "He just didn’t know me very well," she says. She took it as another lesson in what the real world can be like. "The real world can be tough, and exacting, and you have to live up to certain standards, and I learned from that. Not everybody is going to be your supporter. You just live with that. And ignore them" (Tate interview).

She earned her master’s in 1975. After a summer as a visiting scientist at Harwell Laboratories in Oxford, England, she went to work as a senior research engineer at Rockwell. There, she was involved in the production and installation of the ceramic tiles that she had helped develop as a member of Mueller’s team at the UW. She won a company-wide award as "Engineer of the Year" for her solution to a problem involving waterproofing the tiles.

Bumps on the Road to Space

In 1977, when NASA began selecting the first class of astronauts to be trained for missions in the space shuttles, it announced that women would be considered for the first time. Dunbar was one of about 8,000 people who applied, and one of the 60 who were chosen as finalists. However, she was not one of the 35 (including Sally Ride and five other women) who made the final cut. She reacted to the rejection in typical fashion, by correcting her "deficiencies" and trying again. Since all the successful candidates (except those who were pilots) had doctoral degrees, she decided to go back to graduate school

In a speech to engineering students at the UW in November 1978, she talked about the setback and ways in which it motivated her. Not being selected "was a great disappointment," she said, but it reinforced lessons she had learned as a child. If you fall off the horse, you get back on. Failure is a part of life; success is getting up and trying again. "My father told me I could do anything," she added, "and I believed him" (The Seattle Times, 1978). Meanwhile, NASA offered her a job as a payload officer and flight controller at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. She took the job and at the same time, began working toward a doctorate in mechanical and biomedical engineering at the University of Houston (completing it in 1983).

She reapplied to NASA in 1980. This time, she was chosen from a pool of 2,880 applicants as one of 11 members of the second class of shuttle astronauts. This made her an astronaut candidate, or trainee. She became an official astronaut (a word that means "space sailor" in Greek) in August 1981 -- 24 years after 8-year-old Bonnie Dunbar had searched for Sputnik in the night sky and first begun dreaming about going into space herself.

Dunbar was the first person in her family to go to college; the first woman to hold a fulltime professional position in the computer services division at the Boeing Space Center in Kent; and the first female graduate student in the Department of Mining, Metallurgical, and Ceramic Engineering at the UW. She would soon become the first woman from Washington state to go into space.


Dunbar’s first venture into space began at noon Eastern Standard Time on October 30, 1985, when the shuttle Challenger lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral, Florida. The flight, designated Space Transportation System (STS) 61A, was a Spacelab mission organized and financed by West Germany. Spacelab was a 23-foot-long, reusable, modular laboratory developed by the European Space Agency for use inside the shuttle’s cargo bay. Dunbar and one of her crewmates were the mission specialists, responsible for overseeing operations in the lab. To prepare, they spent seven months in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, learning the protocol for the 75 separate experiments that would be carried out in the microgravity environment provided by the orbiting shuttle.

There was a lot of press interest in the flight, especially in Germany. Dunbar wanted to talk about the scientific aspects of the mission. Instead, many journalists focused on the personal. How did she feel about being the only woman on board? Why did she want to become an astronaut? Did she have time for a social life? At a press conference in Germany, she was asked what she thought of Dallas. She said she’d only visited once or twice, but she had heard it was a pretty city. She didn’t know that the reporter was asking about the hugely popular American TV show, a favorite with German audiences. "He couldn’t believe that, coming from America, I had never watched Dallas," she recalled, with a laugh. "But, you know, I was busy" (NASA oral history, December 22, 2004, p. 48).

The mission, the ninth for Challenger, was an untrammeled success. The crew of eight (five Americans, two Germans, and a Dutchman) was the largest ever flown on a single spacecraft. They worked 12-hour shifts, in two teams, ensuring that the lab operated round-the-clock. In addition to conducting a wide range of experiments in materials processing, physics, and life sciences, the crew also deployed a communications satellite.

The shuttle landed, for what was to be the last time, at 9:44 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on November 6, 1985, touching down at Edwards Air Force Base in California a week after lifting off from Florida. About two and a half months later, 73 seconds after the launch of what would have been its 10th mission, Challenger broke apart and disintegrated due to a faulty rocket booster. All seven astronauts on board died. Among them was Francis R. "Dick" Scobee (1939-1986) of Cle Elum, the shuttle’s commander and a friend of Dunbar’s.

The shuttle fleet was grounded for three years while the accident was investigated. Dunbar was part of the review team.

Dunbar experienced two other wrenching losses in 1986. Her mentor, Professor John I. Mueller, died on April 2, of cancer, at age 69. Then, on April 30, her youngest brother, Gary Dunbar, died of smoke inhalation during a fire in his house in Sunnyside. "It was a sad year," she says. "But you move on. That’s something I learned from my mother and father. Death is a part of life. And you have to have grief and you grieve, but you have to move on or you can’t function" (Tate interview).

Return to Space

Soon after the Challenger disaster, the administrator of NASA asked Dunbar to chair a nationwide panel on what kind of microgravity research could be done on future shuttle flights. At the time, the shuttle provided the only environment available for the prolonged study of the effects of weightlessness. Early in the manned space program, NASA had established a Zero Gravity Research Facility in Cleveland, Ohio, with a "drop tube" (a long vertical shaft, largely below ground) that can simulate about five seconds of weightlessness for a falling object. Modified jet aircraft, flying in parabolic arcs, extended that period to about 25 seconds of weightlessness, per arc. Astronauts train, and sometimes conduct experiments, on these so-called "vomit comets." But to really understand how different materials will perform in the absence of gravity and to design systems that work in that environment, you need a laboratory in space, says Dunbar.

The panel submitted its report in 1987. Dunbar is proud that it led to a series of NASA-funded Spacelab flights in the 1990s. Those flights served as a bridge between Skylab, an American space station that orbited Earth from 1973 to 1979; and the International Space Station, the first module of which went into orbit in 1998.

Dunbar began training for her second space flight (STS-32, on the shuttle Columbia) in 1988. That same year she married Ronald M. Sega, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a major in the Air Force Reserve. Sega was selected as an astronaut trainee in January 1990. Dunbar was aboard the shuttle, which launched on January 9, when she heard that he would be joining her in the astronaut corps.

The main object of STS-32 was to retrieve an 11-ton research satellite that had been put into orbit in April 1984 and was supposed to have been recovered a year later. The retrieval had been delayed by the grounding of the shuttle fleet after the Challenger disaster. Dunbar won praise for her skill in snagging the bus-sized object with a robotic arm and easing it into the cramped quarters of the Columbia’s cargo bay. The bay was 15 feet wide; the satellite, 14 feet -- leaving all of 12 inches to spare. Seattle Times science writer Hill Williams called the maneuver "a thrilling coordination of technology and human skill."

She was asked later if she had been nervous, knowing that six years of invaluable scientific research would be lost if she couldn’t grab the rapidly moving satellite. "Not really," she said. "In the middle of performing, whether you’re an athlete or a race car driver or a pilot, you are really focusing on what you’re doing. If you’ve been in the middle of a final exam, are you thinking about your emotions at that time? You are probably thinking about answering the question on the test" (Legacy Project oral history interview, p 52).

Dunbar was the payload commander on her third flight (STS-50, also on Columbia), which lifted off on June 25, 1992. This was the microgravity research mission which she had helped to plan, beginning five years earlier. The 13-day flight was the longest in shuttle history to that point. It included tests on some of the astronauts themselves, to see how they adapted to weightlessness and withstood the stresses of gravity on return. Dunbar was among the subjects. She even conducted a space-to-earth interview while encased in a device that created a partial vacuum on her lower body, to draw blood to her legs and feet. Blood accumulates in the upper body in the absence of gravity. The sudden return to gravity on re-entry can cause astronauts to faint or feel dizzy -- a problem especially for the pilots who have to land the spacecraft. Speaking to a reporter on a video hookup, the lower half of her body stuffed into a wrinkled, white cocoon, Dunbar said it wasn’t as bad as it looked, and that in fact she was "pretty comfortable" (Salt Lake Tribune, 1992).

Star City

Dunbar’s next assignment took her to a place few Americans had ever seen: the once-secret headquarters of the Soviet space program, at Zvyozdny Gorodok, or Star City, near Moscow, in 1994. The Soviet Union had collapsed by then and the budget for the space program had been slashed. Pushed by economic realities into a new era of cooperation in space, the Russians invited their former enemies, the Americans, to participate in a series of joint missions to the Russian space station Mir.

Astronaut (and physician) Norman Thagard was selected as the "prime" for the first mission, which would include a three-month stay on Mir. Dunbar was his the backup: If he couldn’t go, she would. Both needed to be certified by the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City as qualified for long visits to Mir. They began 13 months of training at the center (named for Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit Earth) in mid-February.

They arrived in the middle of a typically bitter Russian winter. There was little fresh food in the stores. Budget cutbacks had left Star City looking worn and neglected. The astronauts lived in a Soviet era high-rise where they encountered such everyday Russian realities as broken elevators and no hot water for weeks at a time. Their apartments were larger than average but did not include clothes dryers; everything had to be hung on lines in the bathroom. Phone service was sporadic, making it difficult to get a call through to Moscow, some 20 miles away, to say nothing of communicating with family and friends back home. Thagard’s wife and son joined him after a few months, but Dunbar’s then-husband, Ron Sega, was on the other side of the world. (The couple later divorced.)

The schedule was highly regimented. It included four hours of language training every day. A typical day might also include two hours of instruction in the systems used on Mir and Soyuz, the Russian spacecraft; two hours of practice on a Soyuz simulator; two hours of grueling physical workouts, and many hours of independent study. Dunbar said the combination of elementary Russian and advanced space science made her feel as if "I’m in the first grade and grad school at the same time" (Los Angeles Times, 1994).

Another challenge for Dunbar was the Russians’ attitude toward women. Although the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova, 1963) and the first woman to perform a spacewalk (Svetlana Savitskaya, 1984) were both Russians, their flights were anomalies, designed to beat the Americans in a gender race for space. Women did not routinely fly on Russian missions. When Dunbar first arrived in Star City, she was not allowed to use the cosmonauts’ gym because there was no dressing room for women. She was finally given a tiny changing closet in an upstairs room.

Looking back on the experience now, she doesn’t dwell on the frustrations. "I made really great friends there," she says. "Institutionally, the Russians weren’t real friendly to women, but it wasn’t really much different from when I started at Boeing. Some of the same comments. ‘Well we don’t send women on long missions because they’ll distract the men.’ Things like that. But they don’t count. What really counted was the fact that my NASA management had enough confidence in me to send me to Russia to back up Norm Thagard, and my Russian crew accepted me, and we bonded as a crew, and the grand commission that has to certify a crew for flight, they certified us. That’s what counts. All that other stuff we used to call burrs under the saddle; they irritate the horse but you can still ride" (Tate interview).

Risky Business

Dunbar flew two more missions for NASA. She was on board the Atlantis (STS-71) when it made a historic docking with Mir on June 29, 1995, delivering two Russian cosmonauts to the space station and retrieving Norman Thagard. It was the first time an American shuttle had linked with the Russian station. She returned to Mir in January 1998 as the payload commander for Endeavour’s mission STS-89. On that flight, she oversaw the operation of 23 scientific experiments and also served as a medical officer.

All told, she logged 50 days, 7 hours, 40 minutes and 26 seconds in space, orbiting the planet nearly 800 times and traveling more than 20 million miles. She says she was never scared, although she admits to a little "healthy apprehension." What she worried about was "making mistakes, because I wouldn’t get a second chance. I kept thinking don’t let me screw this up" (TVW).

She stayed on at NASA for another seven years, working in senior management in a number of different positions. Her job titles changed, but she was usually on hand in the director’s suite at the Johnson Space Center to help monitor shuttle liftoffs and landings. But February 1, 2003, was a Saturday, and she decided to watch the landing that was scheduled for that morning on television at home. That’s where she was when Columbia -- the spacecraft she had helped build and had flown on twice -- broke up during re-entry. As in the Challenger disaster 17 years earlier, all seven crew members died, including Michael P. Anderson (b. 1959) of Spokane, a friend and former crewmate of Dunbar’s. The two had flown together on her last mission.

Subsequent investigation showed that the leading edge of the left wing had been hit by a piece of foam insulation from an external tank shortly after liftoff, damaging the thermal protection system. Dunbar takes pains to point out that the wings were protected by graphite-based material called "reinforced carbon-carbon" -- not by the ceramic tiles that she had helped develop as a member of Professor Mueller’s team at the UW and as an engineer at Rockwell. "It’s a different system," she says. "It did what it was supposed to do. But it was never meant to be hit by a piece of insulation, traveling a couple of times faster than the speed of sound" (Tate interview).

Dunbar retired from NASA in 2005 as associate director for technology, integration, and risk management. She has given a lot of thought to the element of risk in space exploration. Here is what she has to say about it now: "I lost a lot of friends on Challenger, I lost friends on Columbia, I lost friends who were test pilots in California ... . But a whole lot more people die in automobile accidents, needlessly, in this country. The one thing I know is that the people doing this, myself included, we have a reason to be taking that risk. It’s for the nation, it’s for exploration, and to honor that memory you don’t stop" (Tate interview).

Back to Seattle

Dunbar left NASA to become president and chief operating officer of the Museum of Flight. The position appealed to her, she said, because it involved "trying to inspire the future by preserving the past" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2005). During a five-year tenure she oversaw the expansion of the museum’s collections and exhibit space; its designation as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution; and its re-accreditation by the American Association of Museums. She also helped establish the Washington Aerospace Scholars program for high school juniors. The program, a partnership between the museum and NASA, is aimed at boosting student interest in math and science. It includes an online space-exploration curriculum designed by NASA. Students who do well in the online course are invited to take part in a weeklong summer residency at the museum, all expenses paid.


Shortly after Dunbar joined the museum, NASA announced plans to end the shuttle program in five years. After a final flight, scheduled for July 2011, the remaining four orbiters (three that were in active service and one test model that never flew in space) would be donated to museums. One of Dunbar’s goals from the outset was to get one of the retired shuttles for Seattle. She resigned as the museum’s CEO in July 2010 to work more directly on that effort, as executive director of Wings Over Washington, a museum affiliate.

The competition was intense; 21 institutions ended up submitting bids. Supporters of the Museum of Flight hoped that its new $12 million, glass-enclosed Space Gallery, built to meet NASA specifications for housing a shuttle, would give Seattle an edge. They also highlighted the museum’s educational programs, including its alliance with Highline School District’s Aviation High School; and emphasized the area’s aerospace history. More than 26 astronauts have ties to the Northwest, and Boeing 747s were used to transport the shuttles.

NASA announced in April 2011 that the orbiters would go to museums in Florida, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. Seattle ended up with a consolation prize: a "full-fuselage trainer" -- a mockup of the shuttle, minus the wings, that was used to train astronauts. Dunbar said she was disappointed but that the trainer was, in many ways, a better deal, because visitors will be able to go inside. The actual shuttles must be displayed in a way that ensures that the public can't touch them.

Making the Case for Space

Dunbar continues to serve as director of Wings Over Washington, focusing on fundraising and education. She’s also chairing a panel for the National Research Council on the future of technological research at NASA. If anything, she’s become an even more forceful advocate for human spaceflight and space exploration than she was when she was an astronaut and had to parse her words to comply with agency guidelines.

She is blunt in her assessment of the decision to end the shuttle program and turn the world’s only reusable spacecraft into museum pieces. "It’s a tragedy, she says. "Absolute tragedy" (Tate interview).

Ask her why taxpayers should spend billions on space when there are pressing problems on earth and she has a ready answer: "Right now the budget for human space flight in the United States of America is less than one-half of 1 percent. Women spend more on cosmetics for reducing the effects of age than they do on NASA’s budget. I think it’s an unintentional decision by the American taxpayers to pay more for cosmetics than for human space exploration. No nation has suffered because they explored, but nations have suffered when they cease to explore, because exploration is about innovation."

Computers, cell phones, GPS systems -- all depend on technologies that grew out of the space program, she says. Furthermore: "Exploration is part of inquisitiveness, it’s part of knowledge generation, part of something I think is even more ethereal -- trying to understand our place in this universe" (Tate interview).


Cassandra Tate interview with Bonnie Dunbar, Seattle, June 7 and June 9, 2011; Paula Bock, "Bonnie Dunbar: From the Ranch to Outer Space, She Soars," Pacific Northwest Magazine, The Seattle Times, February 18, 2007; Cindy Zehnder interview with Bonnie Dunbar, broadcast on "Inside Olympia," TVW, November 29, 2005 (www.tvw.org); Trova Heffernan, "Bonnie J. Dunbar, Ph.D.: An Adventurous Mind," Legacy Project, 2009, Washington Secretary of State website accessed June 2011 (www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject); Jon Marmor, "Sunnyside Up: Bonnie Dunbar," Columns, June 2004 (http://www.washington.edu/alumni/meet/profiles/dunbar.html); Jennifer Ross-Nazzal interview with Bonnie R. Dunbar, Houston, Texas, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, December 22, 2004, and January 20, March 23, and September 14, 2005; Julie Emery, "Jobs for Minorities Seen in Engineering," The Seattle Times, November 19, 1978, p. 35; Jane Cartwright, "Astronaut Trainee Manages to Find Time for Her Social Life," Ibid., July 16, 1980, p. 29; Sue McMillin, "Couple Hitch Lives, Careers to the Stars," Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, February 19, 1990, p. B-1; Hill Williams, "Shuttle Grabs Big Satellite," The Seattle Times, January 12, 1990, p. 1; Associated Press, "Shuttle Crew Studies Dust, Blood Flow," Salt Lake Tribune, July 6, 1992, p. A-3; Carey Goldberg, "America from Abroad: Two U.S. Astronauts Learning to Say ‘Beam Me Up’ in Russian," Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1994, p. 3; Kery Murakami, "A Moment with Bonnie Dunbar," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 19, 2005, p. B-1; Jack Broom, "No Shuttle, But Seattle Lands Trainer," The Seattle Times, April 13, 2011, p. A-1.

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