Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar completes her first mission in space, on the shuttle Challenger, on November 6, 1985.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 6/02/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9830

On November 6, 1985, astronaut Bonnie J. Dunbar (b. 1949) -- the first woman from Washington state to become an astronaut -- completes her first mission in space, when the shuttle Challenger lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California after orbiting the earth for a week. The mission will turn out to be the last successful flight for the Challenger: The shuttle will be destroyed during liftoff less than three months later, killing all seven crew members on board. Undeterred by the tragedy, Dunbar will fly into space four more times before retiring from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2005.

NASA Mission STS-61A

Born in Sunnyside, Washington, and raised on a ranch in the Yakima Valley, Dunbar joined the astronaut corps in 1981, just three years after NASA began accepting applications from women. Only two other Washingtonians (both men) preceded her into space. Richard F. Gordon Jr. (1929-2017) of Seattle piloted the two-person Gemini 11 spacecraft in 1966. He was also the pilot of the command module of Apollo 12, the second manned mission to the moon, in 1969. Francis R. "Dick" Scobee (1939-1986), a native of Cle Elum, piloted the Challenger on the shuttle’s fifth mission, in April 1984. He was on board the Challenger, as its commander, when it disintegrated because of a faulty rocket booster, 73 seconds after launch, on January 28, 1986.

Challenger was NASA’s second "space plane," after the shuttle Columbia. Its maiden voyage, in April 1983, had included the first American spacewalk. Its second, in June 1983, took an American woman (Sally Ride, b. 1959) into space for the first time. Three of Challenger's missions had involved Spacelab, a reusable, modular laboratory developed by the European Space Agency for use inside the shuttle’s cargo bay. Dunbar’s flight, designated Space Transportation System (STS) 61A, was the ninth for Challenger.

Flight STS- 61A also involved Spacelab but in contrast to the earlier missions, it was financed by West Germany (and for that reason carried the secondary designation of D-1, for Deutschland 1). All the scientific operations were controlled by the German Space Center at Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich. To prepare, Dunbar and one of her crewmates, Guion S. "Guy" Bluford Jr. (b. 1942) spent seven months in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, learning the protocol for some 75 separate experiments designed by principal researchers from several countries. Most of the experiments were to be done in pressurized modules inside the spacecraft; some on a platform attached outside the pressurized hull, in the vacuum of space. All were designed to take advantage of the microgravity environment of earth orbit.

As the flight’s mission specialists, Dunbar and Bluford would be responsible for operating the lab, on two shifts, round the clock. "I think we sometimes forget that we’re just a research platform, and there are researchers and graduate students that have been working years on this project, and the only way they are able to finally conduct the final experiment is in the environment for which it was designed," she commented in a NASA oral history. "So their success is very much dependent upon us, how well we’re trained, how well we understand their scientific objectives" (pp 7-8).

A Gaggle of Astronauts?

In addition to Dunbar, the crew included four other Americans, two Germans, and a Dutchman, for a total of eight: one more than was usual on NASA’s shuttles. "We're still trying to figure out if we're a gaggle or a flock or a herd," Dunbar commented, as the crew prepared for launch (The Seattle Times, October 30, 1985).

Challenger lifted off on mission STS-61A from the Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida, at noon Eastern Standard Time on October 30, 1985. It took about nine minutes to reach orbit, more than 200 miles above the earth. When the main engines shut down, while the astronauts were still strapped into their seats, one of Dunbar's crewmates put a pencil in front of her and let it go. It floated, letting her know that they had reached weightlessness.

Dunbar’s first task was to fold up her seat and stow it. Not knowing how her body was going to adjust to weightlessness (about half of all astronauts experience some degree of space sickness -- officially "space adaptation syndrome"), she moved slowly and methodically. "So I started very slowly, and then I felt fine," she recalled. "I gained a little more confidence, and I said, ‘This is going to be great.’ Didn’t have any symptoms. Got that stuff stowed away. We got on the checklist of the flight plan and started activating, and everything else went like clockwork the rest of the flight" (NASA oral history, p 3).

Dunbar was in charge of one 12-hour shift in Spacelab; Bluford the other. She pulled the first shift, which meant that she was responsible for setting up the Spacelab, which the Seattle Times described as "a workshop crammed with furnaces, biological chambers, a garden and a sled on rails" (October 30, 1985). An ambitious array of experiments had been planned, on topics ranging from life sciences to fluid physics One study involved the development of embryonic frogs; another, protein crystal growth.

The "sled" was a device used to measure changes in the vestibular system (basically, the inner ear) as astronauts adapt to weightlessness. Normally, human beings rely on signals from the inner ear to orient themselves spatially -- to keep their balance, and tell up from down. The Vestibular Sled consisted of a cart mounted on rails, pulled by a cable and powered by an electric motor. Subjects were seated in a chair with a head restraint and a helmet that blocked out visual cues. Dunbar and the other crew members underwent tests on the sled before, during, and after the flight.

The View from Above

Despite the busy schedule while in orbit, Dunbar still had time to marvel at where she was, in space at last, realizing a childhood dream. She had wanted to be an astronaut from an early age, when she began reading science fiction and wondering about what lay beyond the boundaries of earth. On board Challenger, she spent as much time as she could looking out the windows. "When you first have an opportunity to look at Earth, there’s no IMAX film that really even does it justice," she said. She remembered one moment in particular: "We were at the transition of day to night towards the South Pole, and the South Pole was dark, and as a result, we could see the southern lights from above, which just looks like little fire flames ... to see that sight was just really spectacular" (NASA oral history, p 16).

Dunbar’s first adventure in space ended when the shuttle landed in California at 9:44 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on November 6, 1985, seven days, 44 minutes, and 51 seconds after taking off from Florida. She had gone for a week without washing her hair and felt "pretty grungy." She walked out of the shuttle thinking "I really need a shower" (NASA oral history, p 19).

She returned to a hero’s welcome in her hometown six weeks later. Sunnyside threw her a parade and gave her the keys to the city. At nearby Outlook, where she attended grade school, the school’s display cases were filled with space shuttle memorabilia and students were following an exercise regimen based on what astronauts do. Visitors to the Yakima Valley "would be hard-pressed to find somebody, anybody, who didn't know the name Bonnie Dunbar," a newspaper reporter commented (The Seattle Times, November 5, 1985).

Dunbar went on to complete four other space flights. One mission, in the summer of 1995, included a historic docking with the Russian space station Mir. Her last flight, in January 1998, also involved a docking with Mir. Dunbar was the payload commander on that mission, overseeing the transfer of more than 9,000 pounds of equipment, water, and other supplies from the shuttle to the space station. Altogether, she spent more than 50 days in space, traveling more than 20 million miles and orbiting earth nearly 800 times.

"The first time I went up was everything and more than I expected and seven days seemed too short," she said while on a visit to Scotland in 2002, when she received an honorary doctorate from Glasgow University. Scotland, too, claimed her as a local hero, since her grandfather had emigrated from the Scottish village of Dundee and she still had many relatives living in the area. "The weightlessness took some getting used to and you have to worry about keeping things in their place, but it has lots of advantages," she added. "You can work on the ceiling, you're very flexible and it doesn't matter whether you are short or tall. And then, of course, you look out the window and you see this incredibly beautiful planet ... . It is quite breathtaking."


Sources:

Bonnie R. Dunbar, interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, Houston, Texas, January 20, 2005, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Johnson Space Center Oral History Project website accessed May 2011 (http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/c-d.htm); oral history interview with Bonnie J. Dunbar, Seattle, June 19, 2009, by Trova Heffernan, Washington Secretary of State Legacy Project website accessed May 2011 (http://www.sos.wa.gov/legacyproject/oralhistories/bonniedunbar/pdf/complete.pdf); Associated Press, "Challenger's Mixed Crew Lofts into Orbit," The Seattle Times, October 30, 1985, p. A-4; "Vestibular Adaptation," Life Sciences Data Archive, Johnson Space Center, National Aeronautics and Space Administration website accessed May 2011 (http://jsc.nasa.gov); Mary Elizabeth Cronin, "Looking Up: Shuttle Astronaut Dunbar Has Yakima County Folks Stargazing with Local Pride," The Seattle Times, November 5, 1985, p. E-1; "Northwest Today," Ibid., December 18, 1985, p. B-4; Jon Marmor, "Sunnyside Up: Bonnie Dunbar," Columns, June 2004 (http://www.washington.edu/alumni/meet/profiles/dunbar.html); Samantha Booth, "I Dream of Planting the Saltire on Mars," Daily Record (Glasgow, UK), June 25, 2002, pp. 24-25.
This essay was updated on November 15, 2017.


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