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UW alumnus heads to Astronaut Hall of Fame

Bonnie Dunbar, who earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in ceramic engineering (since renamed to materials science engineering, or MSE) from the University of Washington, will be inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center on April 19.

She is part of the 12th group of inductees. Along with Curt Brown and Eileen Collins, she brings the number of astronauts who have received this privilege to 85. 

After she logged 50 days of space travel over five flights, an oversight panel organized by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation found her worthy to join the ranks of Neil Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Jim Lovell, and other notable space explorers.

“For a lot of astronauts, these are their heroes. They could be the reason these astronauts serve today,” said Andrea Farmer, Kennedy Space Center public relations manager. “This is a great honor.”

Dunbar, however, said receiving this recognition was never her aim. She was fascinated with space from a young age, citing a childhood in eastern Washington that allowed her to gaze in wonderment at the “big sky.”

“I’m very honored, and it’s very humbling, but that’s not what my goal was at all. I still kind of wonder, ‘Why me?’” Dunbar said. “My goal was really to serve my country, to help explore, to do the research in space that will help us explore.”

In addition to helping design the thermal protection system that allowed the Space Shuttle Columbia to fly 27 times, she has flown in five out of 135 space missions, for an involvement in more than 200 experiments total. She was CEO of the Museum of Flight from 2005 to 2010. These credentials solidified collective decision to induct her, made by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation board of current Astronaut Hall of Fame members, NASA officials, historians, and journalists.

“All you have to do is look at her record,” said Adam Bruckner, a former colleague of Dunbar’s and former chair of the UW Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics. “It speaks about her tenacity and her capabilities. She’s totally dedicated to education and improving education … for people of all ages.”

Bruckner and Dunbar had not interacted on a research level, but he lauded her and two other UW scientists, Jim Mueller and John Bollard, in their work to create a reliable thermal shield that would protect space shuttles during re-entry. 

Dunbar is currently a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the University of Houston and said she hopes to continue searching for areas of research to invest in while building an aerospace program. She said she was not ready to disclose specifically what the research would entail.

She constantly stressed the importance of a gaining a strong scientific background. She said she surrounds herself with optimistic and bright people but is disheartened about youth who lack the motivation or the means to become educated.

“Knowledge is one of those possessions that no one can take from you; it’s a lifelong pursuit,” she said. “Discipline is really the key to success in life.”

Reach reporter Alex Otsu at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @AlexOtsu

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