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The Indomitable Spirit

Bonnie J. Dunbar, the graduate, poses for her senior portrait in 1967. Sunnyside High School yearbook photo. Bonnie J. Dunbar, the graduate, poses for her senior portrait in 1967. Sunnyside High School yearbook photo.
The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) is not yet accepting women. Dunbar joins the Air Force ROTC Auxiliary, Angel Flight, shown here on a visit to Paine Field. University of Washington, 1969, Tyee Yearbook, pg. 31. The Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) is not yet accepting women. Dunbar joins the Air Force ROTC Auxiliary, Angel Flight, shown here on a visit to Paine Field. University of Washington, 1969, Tyee Yearbook, pg. 31.

And with hard work and resiliency, that's exactly what she did.

Diploma in hand, Sunnyside High School graduate Bonnie Dunbar bid farewell to Outlook in 1967. Showing early signs of boundless enthusiasm and chutzpah, she mailed an application to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), hoping to make a quantum leap into the U.S. Astronaut Corps. Someone at the giant space agency may have smiled, but no one dashed her dreams, she recalls. She received a polite, encouraging response explaining the necessary credentials.

So Bonnie Dunbar prepared for college in the post-Sputnik world of the 1960s. The Space Race was on between the United States and the Soviet Union. And America strived to beat the Russians. A key initiative to meet the challenge was the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA). It was the ticket to the budding astronaut's dreams.

"If it hadn't have been for the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) that provided scholarships and grant money to students willing to study science and engineering and teachers willing to teach the subjects, I wouldn't be sitting here. I was working in the field. I was packing corn for ten cents an ear and sorting asparagus for minimum wage, or working in the Sears Home Repair Office as a clerk. I might still be sitting there if I hadn't had the financial aid."

Students gather for an anti-war rally at the University of Washington campus in 1970. Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, MOHAI. Students gather for an anti-war rally at the University of Washington campus in 1970. Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, MOHAI.

In 1967, Dunbar pounded the pavement as one of the University of Washington's freshman Huskies and the first member of her family to go to college. She was coming of age and had her sights set on engineering. At the end of her freshman year, Dunbar selected ceramic engineering. (Editor's Note: Ceramic engineering today is a multi-billion dollar industry that uses inorganic materials and heat to make everything from snowboards, to airplanes, to the thermal protection on Space Shuttles.)

Of course, the free spirits of the hippie era surrounded her. It was the 1960s. The Doors topped the charts with cryptic lyrics and a cult following. Raucous protests and marijuana found their way onto many college campuses, including the University of Washington. Dunbar, disinterested, kept her nose to the grindstone. Looking back, she's grateful for gifts of a strong work ethic and a sense of purpose that kept her focused.

Following in his father's footsteps, Bonnie's brother Bobby had gone off to war, proudly serving his country. In the spring of 1970, he died on the battlefield in Vietnam.

"He stepped on a land mine," says Dunbar. "Crawled out and refused to have anybody come help him because he didn’t want to put the rest of his squad at risk. For that, he received the bronze star."

Dunbar is understandably private about the family hardship and sorrow. Tragically, her other brother Gary died 16 years later in a house fire caused by an electrical problem.

We came in peace for all mankind

President Kennedy, at Rice Stadium in 1962, prepares the nation for the lunar landing. "It doesn’t happen accidentally," says Dunbar of the country’s bold initiative. NASA photo. President Kennedy, at Rice Stadium in 1962, prepares the nation for the lunar landing. “It doesn't happen accidentally,” says Dunbar of the country's bold initiative. NASA photo.

Whether it sealed her fate as an astronaut, Dunbar isn't entirely sure. But there's nothing like putting a man on the Moon to whet the appetite of aspiring astronauts the world over.

At Rice University Stadium in Houston, a young and charismatic president awakened the American spirit.

"We choose to go to the Moon," President John F. Kennedy told a Texas crowd in September of 1962. "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Nearly seven years after Kennedy's stirring words, Apollo 11 roared into orbit atop the massive Saturn 5, the most powerful rocket ever made. Apollo pushed across more than 238,000 miles (383,023 km) to a prize of unprecedented proportions. At unfathomable speeds, Apollo neared the Moon and the greatest achievement in space of all time.



While astronaut Michael Collins orbited above, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin gingerly approached the dark zones and rugged highlands of the Moon's surface.

"The Eagle has landed," Armstrong reported back to Earth at 4:18 pm EDT 40 years ago. Hours later, Armstrong descended from the Eagle.

Dunbar, a college student at the time, watched in fascination as Armstrong stepped from the ladder and onto the Moon's powdery surface, famously declaring, "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." "It was exciting," Dunbar says of the Moon walking. "It meant that we were really there." (Editor's note: People debate whether Armstrong mistakenly omitted "a" or spoke so quickly the "a" was inaudible.)

As Earth orbited the Sun above them, Armstrong and Aldrin positioned an American flag far from home. "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D.," the accompanying plaque read. "We came in peace for all mankind."

"When we went to the Moon 40 years ago, the whole world watched," recalls Dunbar. "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."

Mueller Hall, constructed in the 1980s, is named for James I. Mueller, a faculty member at the University of Washington from 1949 - 1973. Mueller, Chair of the Mining, Metallurgical, and Ceramic Engineering Department, encouraged Dunbar to dream big. University of Washington photo. Mueller Hall, constructed in the 1980s, is named for James I. Mueller, a faculty member at the University of Washington from 1949 - 1973. Mueller, Chair of the Mining, Metallurgical, and Ceramic Engineering Department, encouraged Dunbar to dream big. University of Washington photo.

Building the Dream

Still inspired by one of the great stories of the 20th Century, Bonnie Dunbar was a young woman dreaming of space and in doing so, well ahead of her time. To a few of her college professors, Dunbar's aspirations seemed bold and unrealistic. It was "not a field for women," they told her.

Dunbar could not be dissuaded. For every professor who doubted her, she says gratefully, many more boosted her up – giving her a work ethic, a sense of purpose, and the ability to see dreams within reach. Besides, as the eternal optimist, Dunbar ignores the cynics anyway. "If you let them take up your brain space you're wasting it," she says adamantly.

A strong source of encouragement was Dr. James I. Mueller, an affable University of Washington professor and Chair of the Department of Ceramic Engineering. Professor Mueller never seemed to mind the end-of-the-year pranks orchestrated by graduating seniors. In fact, Dunbar suspects the longtime professor enjoyed the pranks. He never got angry, she says smiling. His students were his great passion.

Dr. James I. Mueller receives the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Public Service Award. He stands with Senator Scoop Jackson in the Senate Office Building at the nation’s capitol in 1981. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division. Dr. James I. Mueller receives the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Public Service Award. He stands with Senator Scoop Jackson in the Senate Office Building at the nation's capitol in 1981. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection Division.

"When I told him my freshman year that I really wanted to become involved with NASA and be an astronaut he didn't laugh, he didn't try and dissuade me. He just promised that I would be able to meet NASA engineers if I joined his department. After that, he was true to his word."

Luckily, the professor was Principal Investigator on a special research project funded by NASA. Dr. Mueller, Dunbar and a University team developed the materials for ceramic tiles that shield Space Shuttles as they reenter the Earth's atmosphere and encounter 2300-degree (1260°C) heat.

The late Mueller, who lost his battle with cancer at 69, may have been one reason Dunbar became a mentor herself. She's hosted barbeques with engineering students and helped launch space school programs in Scotland, Wales, and the U.S.

Editor's Note: Factual information in this biographical profile and oral history is current as of September, 2009 and supplied by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.