Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar Returns to Northwest as Museum of Flight CEO

Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar Returns to Northwest as Museum of Flight CEO

By Terry Stephens

Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar retired from NASA in September after a distinguished 26-year career that included five space flights.

Astronaut Bonnie Dunbar retired from NASA in September after a distinguished 26-year career that included five space flights.

NASA astronaut Dr. Bonnie Dunbar has returned to her home state to become the new president and chief executive officer of The Museum of Flight. On October 3, she succeeded retiring Ralph Bufano.

Bufano guided the popular aviation and space museum to international stature during his 14 years as CEO and earned the museum’s first “director emeritus” title. Dunbar retired from her own career only three days before, on September 30, to take the Seattle post. She left NASA after 26 years with the nation’s space agency, a career that fulfilled her childhood dream.

“I’ve had the good fortune to have been involved with The Museum of Flight since 1987, when I was asked to visit for a presentation. I was extremely impressed after a tour by Boeing Vice President Dick Taylor, a member of the board,” Dunbar said. “I’ve seen a lot of flight museums around the world, but The Museum of Flight was impressive not only for how they exhibited their planes and for starting their own NASA space center exhibit, but also for bringing faces to history, telling the human side of aviation. The museum has to serve a very broad audience, not just those who fly, but those who just think flying is great.”

She continued to be impressed in later visits to the museum on several other occasions, including a visit to accept one of the museum’s Pathfinder awards that recognizes prominent Northwesterners’ “outstanding contributions to aviation or aerospace.” She also became a member of the museum foundation’s board of trustees.

In 2004, when she participated in the museum’s “meet the astronauts” program for visitors, she was interviewed for the CEO’s position. After a year of searching the nation for a successor to Bufano, the board of directors unanimously chose Dunbar to take the museum to new heights, particularly in its education programs.

“We’re extremely gratified at the highly qualified pool of candidates who sought the presidency,” said Jim Johnson, board chairman. “In the end, however, our decision was rather easy. Dr. Dunbar was a clear standout in her passionate commitment to youth education, which is so central to our mission.”

Johnson said Dunbar has “a remarkable ability to use her own amazing experiences to inspire youth.”

“We are excited at the prospect of harnessing her intellect, energy and passion to our important work,” he said.

After the announcement, Dunbar, 56, enthusiastically expressed her own excitement about her selection.

“Part of the reason we honor the past is to inspire the future,” she said. “The Museum of Flight has established a worldwide reputation for the depth of its commitment to education and the quality of its programs that use the wonder of flight to inspire learning. I am thrilled about becoming part of such a vibrant organization. I look forward to contributing to its future success in preserving and interpreting the glorious past of aviation and space exploration while helping to inspire its even brighter future.”

Describing herself as having “a pretty good sense of humor,” she clearly expects to have fun with her new position. But she also recognizes she’ll have a steep learning curve in a new field–heading a large, growing nonprofit organization with a board of directors, a board of trustees, a large staff and a multitude of aviation, aerospace, history and education programs.

“I believe you have to be flexible in your management style. How you manage here will be different than managing in a research organization such as NASA,” she said “My first order of business will be to maintain all the good things that have happened under Ralph and with the board. I want to continue to emphasize and maintain the outstanding quality of the existing aviation programs at The Museum of Flight and provide education programs to the community and in the whole Northwest.”

She hopes that as she lays out future plans with the board, one of the priorities will be providing a protective structure for the museum’s latest phase of development, the collection of world-class airliners across the street from the museum. The planes, including a Boeing 747, the first Boeing 707 Air Force One and a British Concorde SST, are now open to visitors but still exposed to the weather.

“Eventually, you’ll probably see more attention to the space mission, too,” she said. “We have a great need in this country to inspire more of our youth to study engineering and science. Without them, we will not have future airplanes or space shuttles. The museum’s Challenger Space Center and the new Aviation Learning Center are very important. We want our outreach program to extend across the state and involve universities, too.”

Space has been a focal point in her life since she was 10 years old, growing up on an eastern Washington cattle ranch her parents owned near Outlook.

“We had very clear nights and very few planes, except for some going into Yakima, so it was a really big deal when Sputnik was launched and we saw it one night. I’ve been interested in space flight and science from those early times,” she said.

She was prepared for the hard work of becoming a scientist, researcher and astronaut by the strong work ethic she learned at home.

“I’ve been very fortunate. I recognize that a lot of people have helped me along the way, my parents to the greatest extent,” she said.

Her father, Robert, from Oregon, and her mother, Ethel, from Montana, were “a post-war couple who had a dream of homesteading their own ranch in eastern Washington.

“I always saw how hard they worked (for their dream),” she said.

Her father died earlier this year, and her mother still lives in Washington. Her sister, a teacher, is married to a retired Navy captain and lives in Jacksonville, Fla. Her two brothers are both deceased, she said.

After graduating from Sunnyside High School, Dunbar earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ceramic engineering from the University of Washington in 1971 and 1975, respectively. She then held research and engineering positions with Boeing Computer Services in Seattle; Harwell Laboratories in Oxford, England; and Rockwell International’s Space Division in Downey, Calif., where she developed equipment and manufacturing processes for the space shuttle’s thermal protection system.

In 1978, she joined NASA as a payload officer and flight controller at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, serving as a guidance and navigation officer and flight controller for the Skylab re-entry mission in 1979. Afterward, she was a project officer for the integration of several space shuttle payloads.

After competing with 3,000 candidates for 30 slots, she was chosen in 1981 to join the elite corps of American astronauts, achieving her childhood dream of space flight. Only six women astronauts had been accepted into the nation’s space program before her. She was in the second class.

Her doctorate degree from the University of Houston in 1983 was in mechanical and biomedical engineering, involving a multidisciplinary dissertation on materials science and physiology that evaluated the effects of simulated space flight on bone strength and fracture toughness. While in Texas, she also served as an adjunct assistant professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Houston.

Experiencing five Space Shuttle missions from 1985-1998, she has spent 50 days in space aboard Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia and Endeavour and the Russian Mir space station.

Her first shuttle flight, aboard Challenger, involved West Germany’s Spacelab mission and completion of more than 75 scientific experiments in physiological sciences, materials science, biology and navigation. In preparation for the seven-day flight, she trained in conducting those experiments for six months in Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. She also flew on the shuttle Atlantis in the first space mission to dock with the Russian’s Space Station Mir for an exchange of American crews serving aboard the station.

Dunbar’s most recent flight, the STS-89 mission aboard Endeavour in 1998, involved the eighth docking with Mir and a transfer of 9,000 pounds of scientific equipment, logistical hardware and water from the Endeavour to Mir. Dunbar was the payload commander, responsible for conducting 23 scientific experiments for NASA.

“The shuttle is a cross between an airplane and a space ship and it’s phenomenal,” she said. “Being on five shuttle flights boggles my mind. I was working with research experiments from all over the world, being the hands and eyes for many, many engineers and scientists. One of my most vivid memories, though, will always be the view of the earth while we were in orbit, circling every 90 minutes.”

Assignments with NASA during her career included serving as deputy associate administrator in the Office of Life and Microgravity Sciences in NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. In the mid-1990s, she lived in Star City, Russia, for 13 months, being trained as a back-up crew member for a three-month flight on the Russian Space Station Mir. In 1995, she was certified by the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center to fly on long-duration Mir flights.

For the next year, until late 1996, she was assistant director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center Mission Operations Directorate, responsible for chairing International Space Station Training Readiness Reviews and facilitating Russian and American operations and training strategies. Later, in 1998, she served as assistant director for university research and affairs at the space center, until 2003, managing and directing the center’s education and grant programs for university research. That assignment also included extensive collaborative efforts with colleges, universities and scientific and engineering organizations.

From late 2003 until January 2005, she was deputy associate director for biological sciences and applications, and then became associate director of technology integration and risk management, her last position before retiring at the end of September. She’s is a member of many professional organizations, among them the Society of Women Engineers, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Association of Space Explorers.

Special honors for the scientist and astronaut include induction into the Women in Technology International’s Hall of Fame in 2000, membership on the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Advisory Board, the Museum of Flight Pathfinder award in 1993, and a University of Washington Engineering Alumni Achievement award. She received the Gen. Jimmy Doolittle Fellow of the Aerospace Education Foundation honor in 1986, and was chosen Rockwell International’s Engineer of the Year in 1977. From NASA, she’s received the Exceptional Achievement Medal, Outstanding Leadership award and Superior Accomplishment award, as well as five NASA Space Flight Medals for her 1985, 1990, 1992, 1995 and 1998 shuttle missions.

Dunbar said her major reason for applying for the Museum of Flight’s leadership position was the museum’s major commitment to the same areas she has had a passion for all of her life–science, math, engineering and technology education.

The independent, nonprofit Museum of Flight is one of the largest air and space museums in the world, featuring a growing collection of more than 150 historically-significant aircraft and spacecraft that draws some 400,000 visitors each year. The museum’s aeronautical library and archival center is the largest on the West Coast.

More than 100,000 children are served annually by the museum’s on-site and outreach educational programs, the most extensive museum-based youth aviation and space education program in the country. It’s one of only 750 museums in the nation and nine in Washington state that are fully accredited by the American Association of Museums.