Obituary: Dale Gardner, astronaut born in Minnesota, salvaged 2 satellites

  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 8:16 PM

Dale A. Gardner, 65, an astronaut who helped lead the first salvage operation in space, steering a jet-propelled backpack to corral two wayward satellites and bring them aboard the space shuttle Discovery, all while orbiting 224 miles above Earth, died Feb. 19 in Colorado Springs, Colo. His death was confirmed by NASA, which did not provide a cause.

During the course of two spacewalks from Nov. 12-14, 1984, Gardner and a colleague, Joseph Allen, each used a nitrogen-gas-powered manned maneuvering unit, or MMU, to travel the 35 feet from the shuttle to the stranded satellites. Both satellites, the Palapa B-2 and the Westar 6, which had been deployed from a shuttle earlier in the year, had slipped into useless orbits. Each time, the astronauts had to improvise.

On the first walk, Allen connected the Palapa to the shuttle’s mechanical arm. But once it was brought close to the shuttle, an obstruction on the satellite prevented the mechanical arm from positioning it in the cargo bay.

Correspondent John Noble Wilford covered the moment for the New York Times. On Nov. 13, in the lead article on the front page, he wrote: “So now, appearing a bit more like Laurel and Hardy moving a piano, the two astronauts on their own struggled to push and turn and steady the nine-foot-long satellite. For 90 minutes, an entire turn around the world, Allen stretched himself to hold one end of the satellite steady, while Gardner attached clamps to the other end so that Palapa could be locked into a cradle in the cargo bay.

“ ‘Joe, I assume you’re comfortable there,’ Commander Gardner said to the outstretched Dr. Allen, who at 130 pounds is the smallest man in the astronaut corps, as he held onto the 1,200-pound satellite.

“ ‘Not very,’ Dr. Allen replied, but he held on. His booted feet were firmly planted in foot restraints on the side of the cargo bay.”

Although the weightlessness of space made the Palapa easy to move, inertia had made it hard to stop. At one point, Gardner had to jump in quickly to keep it from colliding with the shuttle. They eventually secured it in the Discovery’s cargo bay, guided by another astronaut, Anna Fisher. Gardner spent a total of 337 hours in space and made 225 orbits of the Earth on his two flights.

Dale Allan Gardner was born on Nov. 8, 1948, in Fairmont, Minn., and moved to Savanna, Ill. He graduated from Savanna Community High School in 1966, the valedictorian of his class. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he joined the Navy to learn to fly. He excelled in flight school and was working as a Navy test pilot when NASA selected him as an astronaut candidate in 1978.

Survivors include his wife, Sherry; a daughter, Lisa Gardner Hoefler; a stepdaughter, Erika Church; a stepson, Christopher Church; two grandchildren; his mother, Alice Gardner; and two sisters, Peggy Janka and Kay Zipse.

New York Times

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