Bonnie J. Dunbar, Ph.D: Confidence In Flight 2016-12-17 19:32:10
ARTICLE BY SHERRY EGAN ANDERSON, ANGELOS EDITOR; VIDEO INTERVIEW BY KRISTEN ARCHER, SENIOR MULTIMEDIA MANAGER "AS a young girl growing up in rural Washington state in the 1950s, Bonnie Dunbar eagerly looked forward to the monthly visit from the bookmobile – she would select the maximum of 10 titles that would have to satisfy her appetite for reading until the vehicle's next trip to her family's homestead. Science fiction writers H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were two of her favorite authors. Little did she know then that her own story of growing up near the small town of Sunnyside to traveling the world and beyond to space would read like a work of fiction to many. "IB grew up in a very 'normal' environment for me, when 50 percent of the population was rural," Bonnie says, "but I find many young people don't think it is so normal now." Her parents homesteaded in 1948 not long after WWII. They pitched a tent on land that was mostly rock and sagebrush. Just before Bonnie was born in 1949, they moved into two sheepherder huts, but still there was no running water or electricity. By age 3, Bonnie had two younger brothers, and the family moved into a small house that had two bedrooms and a kitchen. The indoor bathroom and a sister would come much later. "I NEVER FELT THAT WE WERE WANTING," Bonnie says. "We are so used to the conveniences now, but here we were in the great outdoors. We could see Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams. I had a horse before I could walk. We raised crops. We had cattle. I was in the 4-H Club for sewing and cooking, but I wasn't that good at either (better at sewing than cooking), so I raised my horse and my steers as 4-H projects. It was four kids and the parents and a really great community. That was the environment." Around age 8, Bonnie's parents purchased the family's first TV, and when she finished her chores, she would watch Flash Gordon, the story of space travelers exploring the universe. The 1950s' TV series was primitive by today's standards – a black and white picture and no special effects. Bonnie recalls a little spaceship suspended by string bouncing across the screen. "But I could suspend my sense of reality," she says. "I really wanted to explore these worlds because I was in an environment of exploration. My mom and dad started from ground zero, and every day was an adventure." Fiction became reality on Oct. 4,1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite. According to NASA, Sputnik was approximately the size of a beach ball and weighed about 183 pounds. It took 98 minutes to orbit Earth on its elliptical path. Its launch marked the start of the space age and the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union. "THE WHOLE WORLD WAS FOCUSED ON SPUTNIK," Bonnie says. "I looked at that as exciting. My parents, as many adults, were rather alarmed since it was during the Cold War. It wasn't so much the satellite that was important as the fact that the Soviet Union built a rocket that could put an object into space, a satellite as well as a weapon. So it was alarming to a lot of the rest of the world, but it did mean that technology was moving forward." Bonnie knew from that young age that she loved space, and she also loved studying science and math. Fortunately, no one told her she shouldn't love these subjects. She says, "Too often, we turn girls off to science and math. We tell them it's too hard or they won't need it, and yet they use science and math all the time." When Bonnie was finishing eighth grade, her principal, Mr. Miller, asked, "What do you want to become?" She replied, "I want to build spaceships and fly in them." He told her she should take Algebra in high school. Bonnie didn't know what Algebra was, but the principal said, "Trust me." And she did. Bonnie's high school Algebra teacher wasn't particularly inspiring, but she took this as a lesson in life: "You build your own course." She worked all the problems with answers in the back of the book, so she could help herself learn the subject. "MATH IS A LANGUAGE," Bonnie says. "Women are encouraged to learn languages. You learn the vocabulary. You learn the sentence structure. Mathematics is the same way. You train your brain." Today she believes the four years of science and mathematics a student learns in high school will open the doors to 75 percent of all careers. "Science tells you there's a problem. Engineering provides creative solutions. If you want to be part of the solution, learn the language of science and mathematics." Bonnie graduated from Sunnyside High School in 1967 and was determined to attend college. She would be the first in her family to do so. "We looked at education as a gift." Her family inspired her to follow her dream. Her grandfather at age 19 had left Scotland with a one-way ticket to America. "His dream was to feel his own soil in his hands," Bonnie says, "and he was able to achieve that. It was hard work, but he achieved it." Bonnie's parents followed their dream of homesteading and ranching and expected their children to pursue their own dreams. They also passed along their family's work ethic, and Bonnie says, "I enjoyed work for work's sake, for achievement. I loved learning, and I wanted to learn about this new frontier. So that's what I followed." Bonnie's physics teacher, Mr. Anderson, helped her navigate the college application process and recommended she study engineering. Bonnie didn't know what engineering was, but the teacher said, "Trust me." And she did. She was accepted to the University of Washington in Seattle, and was able to attend because her GPA and SAT scores qualified her for the National Science Education Act Loan and Grant, an opportunity the government was offering to educate more scientists and engineers because the United States was planning to go to the moon. "IT WAS ALL ABOUT SPACE. SPACE IS INGRAINED IN ME." Bonnie says. As serious as Bonnie was about her studies, she was well-rounded. At the University of Washington, she served in the student government and joined Kappa Delta's Sigma Iota Chapter. "I liked Kappa Delta because there was an emphasis on academics," she says, "but the most positive influence for me was the socialization. Even though I was involved in sports and was a cheerleader in high school, because we lived so far from town, there were not a lot of sleepovers and socialization events. Quite frankly, girls were a little bit foreign to me . . . But that's what a sorority is all about. I had wanted a sister, and she came to me when I was 10 years old, but she wasn't fully grown – still a baby! She was a sister, but it would take many years for that relationship to develop." In Kappa Delta, Bonnie found additional sisters who would become her lifelong friends. Entering college, Bonnie assumed she would study aerospace engineering, but again, she acted on the advice of an educator. The head of the Department of Mining, Metallurgical and Ceramic Engineering, Dr. James I. "Doc" Mueller, encouraged her to study ceramic engineering. Bonnie says, "I shared with him that I wanted to be an astronaut. He did not laugh. In fact, the only people who would sometimes laugh at me and at least tell me that I had unrealistic expectations were professional women. I never did have any of my male professors or teachers discourage me." Dr. Mueller told Bonnie he would introduce her to NASA engineers and she could have a summer job under a NASA grant. To further convince Bonnie to join his program, the professor showed her an artist's concept of the space shuttle re-entering Earth's atmosphere. The year was 1968. Rockwell International didn't secure the contract to build the space shuttle until 1972, but the university had the NASA grant to work on the ceramic fiber tiles, the thermal protection system that protected the shuttle from 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit and also made it reusable. The following year, the United States made it to the moon on July 20,1969. "It was a pivotal point in our world history – the first time a human had walked on a body other than Earth," Bonnie says, emphasizing it also was significant because of the technology that came from the effort to reach the moon, such as satellites, new materials, computer modeling and simulation. A little more than a decade later, NASA accepted Bonnie into its 1980 class of astronauts, and she flew on the first of her five space shuttle missions in 1985. Like her grandfather before her, there were years of hard work in achieving her dream. She was employed in several different capacities while also earning a master's degree and her doctorate. She studied other disciplines – astronomy, oceanography, meteorology, geology – and she spent 13 months in Russia learning the language and skills needed to work with the Mir space station cosmonauts. She earned her pilot's license and learned the systems of the space vehicles in which she flew. As a mission specialist on STS-32, she operated the Canadian-built robotic arm that retrieved the Long Duration Exposure Satellite, a 32,000 pound research satellite that had been in earth's orbit for five years. She also demonstrated other necessary attributes, such as the ability to be a team player and having self-discipline, a healthy lifestyle and good character. THERE WERE TIMES SHE QUESTIONED IF SHE SHOULD CONTINUE ON HER QUEST, especially when she didn't make the final cut for the 1978 astronaut class because she hadn't yet completed her doctorate degree. She didn't want her life to be one of regret, to look back one day and say, "Gee, I just wish I had tried one more time." There were other times when things didn't go as planned, but Bonnie says she learned life isn't perfect. "You're going to fail. Learn from your failures so you don't repeat them, but then forget about them. You're wasting your brain cells. It doesn't change the past, so move forward." She shares this advice with the young men and women she mentors. "If they've never failed, they've never tried," she says. "I fell off the horse a lot." It's the achievement of getting back up on the horse or solving the Algebra problems that builds confidence. "[Self-confidence] by definition is in yourself," Bonnie says. "Once you acquire that skill or knowledge, then you can build upon that. . . Success has to be defined individually. You make your success by how far you progress against your own goals." Bonnie has observed that many men and women, but most especially women, create their own hurdles to success. Young women will say to her, "My mother says engineering is a tough environment for women." Bonnie responds, "I've been in corporate America. I've been in government. We're begging for women. I've had a supportive environment... most men have always been encouraging. We need to stop thinking of men as being aliens. They aren't automatically assuming that you can't perform or do it. There's a responsibility though on our part to know our stuff and be able to perform. Because I worked hard and was able to do my job, I got the support I needed." She also says, "It's not just important for women to support other women; women need to support people, just like they expect other people to support them . . . We need to not fall back on stereotypes that are 50 years old. We need to encourage our girls and say: Follow your dreams." "KAPPA DELTA SHOULD BE ABOUT BUILDING THE WOMEN OF THE FUTURE." she says. "Selfishly, I'd like to see Kappa Delta produce more engineers and scientists . . . This country is not producing enough engineers and scientists. Our whole quality of life depends on that, also business. Engineering produces products, and products sell in the marketplace, and they provide jobs. If you don't have the intellectual property to begin with, then you don't have the company. We have to reach young people to encourage them into math and science to gain those skills, or we won't be part of the 21st century economy in 50 years." Significant advancements in science and technology have been made in the past 50 years since Bonnie began her studies at the University of Washington. She was inducted in 2013 into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, recognizing the role she played in advancing space exploration. Bonnie's achievements also are recognized in the newly renovated Kappa Delta museum at National Headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. Bonnie says, "It is an honor, and if it will serve as a vehicle to hopefully encourage more young women into science and engineering, then it will be worth it."
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